by Saul McLeod published 2007 updated 2013
The work of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) has become the foundation of much research and theory in cognitive development over the past several decades, particularly of what has become known as Social Development Theory.
Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition Vygotsky, 1978), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of "making meaning."
Unlike Piaget's notion that children's' development
must necessarily precede their learning,
learning is a necessary and universal aspect
of the process of developing culturally organized,
specifically human psychological function" (1978, p.
90). In other words, social learning tends to precede (i.e.
come before) development.
Vygotsky has developed a socio-cultural approach to cognitive development. He developed his theories at around the same time as Jean Piaget was starting to develop his theories (1920's and 30's), but he died at the age of 38 and so his theories are incomplete - although some of his writings are still being translated from Russian.
No single principle (such as Piaget's equilibration) can account for development. Individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes.
Vygotsky's theory differs from that of Piaget in a number of important ways:
1: Vygotsky places more emphasis on culture affecting/shaping cognitive development - this contradicts Piaget's view of universal stages and content of development. (Vygotsky does not refer to stages in the way that Piaget does).
2: Vygotsky places considerably more emphasis on social factors contributing to cognitive development (Piaget is criticized for underestimating this).
3: Vygotsky places more (and different)
emphasis on the role of language in cognitive development (again Piaget is
criticized for lack of emphasis on this).
Effects of Culture: - Tools of intellectual adaptation
Like Piaget, Vygotsky claimed that infants are born with the basic materials/abilities for intellectual development - Piaget focuses on motor reflexes and sensory abilities.
Lev Vygotsky refers to Elementary Mental Functions –
Eventually, through interaction within the socio-cultural environment, these are developed into more sophisticated and effective mental processes/strategies which he refers to as
Higher Mental Functions.
For example, memory in young children this is limited by biological factors. However, culture determines the type of memory strategy we develop. E.g., in our culture we learn note-taking to aid memory, but in pre-literate societies other strategies must be developed, such as tying knots in string to remember, or carrying pebbles, or repetition of the names of ancestors until large numbers can be repeated.
Vygotsky refers to tools of intellectual adaptation - these allow children to use the basic mental functions more effectively/adaptively, and these are culturally determined (e.g. memory mnemonics, mind maps).
Vygotsky therefore sees cognitive functions, even those carried out alone, as affected by the beliefs, values and tools of intellectual adaptation of the culture in which a person develops and therefore socio-culturally determined. The tools of intellectual adaptation therefore vary from culture to culture - as in the memory example.
Social Influences on Cognitive Development
Like Piaget, Vygotsky believes that young children are curious and actively involved in their own learning and the discovery and development of new understandings/schema. However, Vygotsky placed more emphasis on social contributions to the process of development, whereas Piaget
emphasized self-initiated discovery.
According to Vygotsky (1978), much important learning by the child occurs through social interaction with a
skillful tutor. The tutor may model behaviors and/or provide verbal instructions for the child. Vygotsky refers to this as co-operative or collaborative dialogue. The child seeks to understand the actions or instructions provided by the tutor (often the parent or teacher) then
internalizes the information, using it to guide or regulate their own performance.
Shaffer (1996) gives the example of a young girl who is given her first jigsaw. Alone, she performs poorly in attempting to solve the puzzle. The father then sits with her and describes or demonstrates some basic strategies, such as finding all the comer/edge pieces and provides a couple of pieces for the child to put together herself and offers encouragement when she does so. As the child becomes more competent, the father allows the child to work more independently. According to Vygotsky, this type of social interaction involving co-operative or collaborative dialogue promotes cognitive development.
In order to gain an understanding of Vygotsky's theories on cognitive development, one must understand two of the main principles of Vygotsky's work: the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
More Knowledgeable Other
The more knowledgeable other (MKO) is somewhat self-explanatory; it refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept.
Although the implication is that the MKO is a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case. Many times, a child's peers or an adult's children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience.
For example, who is more likely to know more about the newest
teen-age music groups, how to win at the most recent PlayStation
game, or how to correctly perform the newest dance craze - a child
or their parents?
In fact, the MKO need not be a person at all. Some companies, to support employees in their learning process, are now using electronic performance support systems. Electronic tutors have also been used in educational settings to facilitate and guide students through the learning process. The key to MKOs is that they must have (or be programmed with) more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does.
Zone of Proximal Development
The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to the second important principle of Vygotsky's work, the Zone of Proximal Development.
This is an important concept that relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.
For example, the child could not solve the jigsaw puzzle (in the example above) by itself and would have taken a long time to do so (if at all), but was able to solve it following interaction with the father, and has developed competence at this skill that will be applied to future jigsaws.
Vygotsky (1978) sees the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given - allowing the child to develop skills they will then use on their own - developing higher mental functions.
Vygotsky also views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more
skillful peers - within the zone of proximal development.
Evidence for Vygotsky and the ZPD
Freund (1990) conducted a study in which children had to decide which items of furniture should be placed in particular houses of a dolls house. Some children were allowed to play with their mother in a similar situation before they attempted it alone (zone of proximal development) whilst others were allowed to work on this by themselves (Piaget's discovery learning).
Freund found that those who had previously worked with their mother (ZPD) showed greatest improvement compared with their first attempt at the task. The conclusion being that guided learning within the ZPD led to greater understanding/performance than working alone (discovery learning).
Vygotsky and Language
According to Vygotsky (1962) language plays 2 critical roles in cognitive development:
1: It is the main means by which adults transmit info to children.
2: Language itself becomes a very powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.
Private speech, also called internal speech, refers to occasions when people talk aloud to themselves. This is particular prevalent amongst children. Vygotsky was the first psychologist to document the importance of private speech and there has been considerable debate regarding its purpose and value in terms of cognitive and social development.
Vygotsky sees "private speech" as a means for children to plan activities and strategies and therefore aid their development. Language is therefore an accelerator to thinking/understanding (Jerome Bruner also views language in this way). Vygotsky believed that children who engaged in large amounts of private speech are more socially competent than children who do not use it extensively.
Vygotsky believed that language develops from social interactions, for communication purposes. Later language ability becomes internalized as thought and “inner speech”. Thought is the result of language.
Berk (1986) provided empyreal support for the notion of private speech. He found that most private speech exhibited by children serves to describe or guide the child's actions.
Berk also discovered than child engaged in private speech more often when working alone on challenging tasks and also when their teacher was not immediately available to help them. Furthermore, Berk also found that private speech develops similarly in all children regardless of cultural background.
Current applications of Vygotsky's work
A contemporary application of Vygotsky's theories is "reciprocal teaching", used to improve students' ability to learn from text. In this method, teacher and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. The teacher's role in the process is reduced over time. Also, Vygotsky is relevant to instructional concepts such as "scaffolding" and "apprenticeship", in which a teacher or more advanced peer helps to structure or arrange a task so that a novice can work on it successfully.
Vygotsky's theories also feed into current interest in collaborative learning, suggesting that group members should have different levels of ability so more advanced peers can help less advanced members operate within their ZPD.
Vygotksy's work has not received same level of intense succinctly that Piaget's has, partly due to the time consuming process of translating Vygotsky's work from Russian.
Perhaps the main criticism of Vygotsky work concerns the assumption that it is relevant to all cultures. Rogoff (1990) dismisses the idea that Vyogtsky's ideas are culturally universal and instead states the concept of scaffolding - which is heavily dependent on verbal instruction - may not be equally useful in all cultures of for all types of learning. Indeed, in some instances observation and practice may be more effective ways of learning certain skills.
APA Style References
Berk, L. E. (1986). Relationship of elementary school children’s private speech to behavioral accompaniment to task, attention, and task performance. Developmental Psychology , 22 , 671–680
Freund, L. S. (1990). Maternal regulation of children's problem-solving behavior and its impact on children's performance. Child Development, 61, 113-126.
Rogoff, B (1990). Apprenticeships in Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schaffer, R (1996). Social Development. Oxford: Blackwell.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
How to cite this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2007). . Retrieved from
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