The Difference Between Piaget and Bronfenbrenner Theories

Urie Bronfenbrenner was a Russian-born developmental psychologist who was famous for his social theories of child development and who helped to found the Head Start program in the United States 1. Jean Piaget was a Swiss-born developmental psychologist who was most famous for his theory of childhood cognitive development. While both men were known for their immense contributions to developmental theory, their theories had many notable differences.

Basic Perspective

Although both were developmental psychologists, Piaget and Bronfenbrenner differed in their basic theories of how children develop. Bronfenbrenner took a sociocultural perspective, with development occurring primarily through interaction with societal and environmental influences. In contrast, Piaget took a cognitive perspective, theorizing that children develop mentally in conjunction with their physiological development. Although Piaget’s primary focus was on how children’s minds develop, he also acknowledged a child’s interaction with her environment, but not to the same extent as Bronfenbrenner.

Piaget's Stage Theory

Unlike Bronfenbrenner, Piaget saw development as occurring in a series of stages, postulating that the child reaches certain cognitive milestones in conjunction with physiological ones. Piaget theorized a four-stage model of development, consisting of sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational stages. Throughout these stages, the child learns certain cognitive tasks, each one increasing his relationship to the outside world. For instance, in the concrete operational phase, a child learns to think logically and solve problems, but does not gain the ability to reason abstractly until reaching the formal operational stage

Bronfenbrenner's Systems Theory

Bronfenbrenner believed that human development stems from social interactions and is highly influenced by society and culture. In contrast to Piaget’s stages, Bronfenbrenner viewed development as taking place within a series of different social ecosystems. These include microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems and macrosystems. These systems span from immediately close influences, such as family, friends and peers (microsystems) to larger influences such as school boards and employment agencies (meso- and exosystems) to cultural, political and economic influences (macrosystems).


Although both theorists were major influences on the field of child development, the implications of the work of Piaget and Brofenbrenner differed considerably. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development helped illuminate how people think about and understand the world. He also had an impact on education by showing the importance of age-appropriate learning. In contrast, Brofenbrenner’s work helped people to understand how social forces affect development. Brofenbrenner has influenced views on the impact of social policy on the individual, particularly in the area of education.

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