Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

By Saul Mcleod, PhD | Updated August 18, 2022,

The work of Lev Vygotsky (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 sociocultural theory.

Vygotsky's sociocultural theory views human development as a socially mediated process in which children acquire their cultural values, beliefs, and problem-solving strategies through collaborative dialogues with more knowledgeable members of society. Vygotsky's theory is comprised of concepts such as culture-specific tools, private speech, and the Zone of Proximal Development.

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 childrens' development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, "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 believed that cognitive development was founded on social interaction. According to Vygotsky, much of what children acquire in their understanding of the world is the product of collaboration with others.

Vygotsky’s theory has profound implications for classroom learning. Teachers guide, support and encourage children, yet also help them to develop problem-solving strategies that can be generalised to other situations.

Children learn best not when they are isolated, but when they interact with others, particularly more knowledgeable others who can provide the guidance and encouragement to master new skills.

Lev Vygotsky was a seminal Russian psychologist best known for his sociocultural theory. He constructed the idea of a zone of proximal development, which are those tasks which are too difficult for a child to solve alone but s/he can accomplish with the help of adults or more skilled peers.

Vygotsky has developed a sociocultural approach to cognitive development. He developed his theories at around the same time as Jean Piaget was starting to develop his ideas (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.

Like Piaget, Vygotsky could be described as a constructivist, in that he was interested in knowledge acquisition as a cumulative event - with new experiences and understandings incorporated into existing cognitive frameworks. However, whilst Piaget’s theory is structural (arguing that development is governed by physiological stages), Vygotsky denies the existence of any guiding framework independent of culture and context.

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 Ideas

  • Vygotsky's theory focuses on the role of culture in the development of mental abilities e.g. speech and reasoning in children.
  • According to Vygotsky, adults in society foster children’s cognitive development by engaging them in challenging and meaningful activities. Adults convey to children the way their culture interprets and responds to the world.
  • They show the meaning they attach to objects, events and experiences. They provide the child with what to think (the knowledge) and how to think (the processes, the tools to think with).
  • The interactions with others significantly increases not only the quantity of information and the number of skills a child develops, it also affects the development of higher order mental functions such as formal reasoning. Vygotsky argued that higher mental abilities could only develop through the interaction with more advanced others.
  • Vygotsky proposed that children are born with elementary mental abilities such as memory and perception and that higher mental functions develop from these through the influence of social interactions.
  • Vygotsky agreed with Piaget that the development of cognitive abilities takes place in stages and he also agreed broadly with the description of the stages however he viewed cognitive development as a social process where children learn from experienced adults.
  • Vygotsky stated that language has two functions. Inner speech is used for mental reasoning and external speech is used to converse with others. These operations occur separately. Indeed, before the age of two, a child employs words socially; they possess no internal language. Once thought and language merge, however, the social language is internalized and assists the child with their reasoning. Thus, the social environment is ingrained within the child’s learning.

Vygotsky's theory differs from that of Piaget in a number of important ways:

Differences betwee Vygotsky and Piaget In Psychology

1: Vygotsky places more emphasis on culture affecting 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).

Hence Vygotsky assumes cognitive development varies across cultures, whereas Piaget states cognitive development is mostly universal across cultures.

2: Vygotsky places considerably more emphasis on social factors contributing to cognitive development.

(i) Vygotsky states the importance of cultural and social context for learning. Cognitive development stems from social interactions from guided learning within the zone of proximal development as children and their partner's co-construct knowledge. In contrast, Piaget maintains that cognitive development stems largely from independent explorations in which children construct knowledge of their own.

(ii) For Vygotsky, the environment in which children grow up will influence how they think and what they think about.

3: Vygotsky places more (and different) emphasis on the role of language in cognitive development.

According to Piaget, language depends on thought for its development (i.e., thought comes before language). For Vygotsky, thought and language are initially separate systems from the beginning of life, merging at around three years of age, producing verbal thought (inner speech).

For Vygotsky, cognitive development results from an internalization of language.

4: According to Vygotsky adults are an important source of cognitive development.

Adults transmit their culture's tools of intellectual adaptation that children internalize. In contrast, Piaget emphasizes the importance of peers, as peer interaction promotes social perspective taking.

Effects of Culture: - Tools of intellectual adaptation

Vygotsky claimed that infants are born with the basic abilities for intellectual development called 'elementary mental functions' (Piaget focuses on motor reflexes and sensory abilities).

Elementary mental functions include –

o Attention

o Sensation

o Perception

o Memory

Eventually, through interaction within the sociocultural environment, these are developed into more sophisticated and effective mental processes which Vygotsky refers to as 'higher mental functions.'

Each culture provides its children tools of intellectual adaptation that allow them to use the basic mental functions more effectively/adaptively.

Tools of intellectual adaptation is Vygotsky’s term for methods of thinking and problem-solving strategies that children internalize through social interactions with the more knowledgeable members of society.

For example, memory in young children this is limited by biological factors. However, culture determines the type of memory strategy we develop.  For example, in western culture, children learn note-taking to aid memory, but in pre-literate societies, other strategies must be developed, such as tying knots in a string to remember, or carrying pebbles, or repetition of the names of ancestors until large numbers can be repeated.

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 cooperative 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 corner/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 cooperative 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 teenage 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.

Vygotsky consequently focuses much more closely on social interaction as an aid to learning; arguing that, left alone, children will develop - but not to their full potential. He refers to the gap between actual and potential learning as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) - and argues that it is only through collaboration with adults and other learners that this gap can be bridged.

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development is the gap between the level of actual development, what the child can do on his own and the level of potential development, what a child can do with the assistance of more advanced and competent individuals. Social interaction, therefore, supports the child’s cognitive development in the ZPD, leading to a higher level of reasoning.

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.

ZPD is the zone where instruction is the most beneficial as it is when the task is just beyond the individual’s capabilities. To learn we must be presented with tasks that are just out of our ability range. Challenging tasks promote the maximum cognitive growth.

As a result of shared dialogues with more knowledgeable others, who provide hints and instructions as well as encouragement, the child is able to internalize the ‘how to do it’ part of the task as part of their inner or private speech. This can then be used by the child on later occasions when they tackle a similar task on their own.

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 areas 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) while 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 the 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

Vygotsky believed that language develops from social interactions, for communication purposes. Vygotsky viewed language as man’s greatest tool, a means for communicating with the outside world.

According to Vygotsky (1962) language plays two critical roles in cognitive development:

1: It is the main means by which adults transmit information to children.

2: Language itself becomes a very powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.

Vygotsky (1987) differentiates between three forms of language: social speech which is external communication used to talk to others (typical from the age of two); private speech (typical from the age of three) which is directed to the self and serves an intellectual function; and finally private speech goes underground, diminishing in audibility as it takes on a self-regulating function and is transformed into silent inner speech (typical from the age of seven).

For Vygotsky, thought and language are initially separate systems from the beginning of life, merging at around three years of age. At this point speech and thought become interdependent: thought becomes verbal, speech becomes representational. When this happens, children's monologues internalized to become inner speech. The internalization of language is important as it drives cognitive development.

'Inner speech is not the interiour aspect of external speech - it is a function in itself. It still remains speech, i.e., thought connected with words. But while in external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words dies as they bring forth thought. Inner speech is to a large extent thinking in pure meanings.'

Vygotsky (1987) was the first psychologist to document the importance of private speech. He considered private speech as the transition point between social and inner speech, the moment in development where language and thought unite to constitute verbal thinking.

Thus private speech, in Vygotsky's view, was the earliest manifestation of inner speech. Indeed, private speech is more similar (in its form and function) to inner speech than social speech.

Private speech is 'typically defined, in contrast to social speech, as speech addressed to the self (not to others) for the purpose of self-regulation (rather than communication).'

Unlike inner speech which is covert (i.e., hidden), private speech is overt. In contrast to Piaget’s (1959) notion of private speech representing a developmental dead-end, Vygotsky (1934, 1987) viewed private speech as: 'A revolution in development which is triggered when preverbal thought and preintellectual language come together to create fundamentally new forms of mental functioning.' (Fernyhough & Fradley, 2005: p. 1)

In addition to disagreeing on the functional significance of private speech, Vygotsky and Piaget also offered opposing views on the developmental course of private speech and the environmental circumstances in which it occurs most often (Berk & Garvin, 1984).

Piaget's and Vygotsky's views on private speech

Through private speech, children begin to collaborate with themselves in the same way a more knowledgeable other (e.g., adults) collaborate with them in the achievement of a given function.

Vygotsky sees "private speech" as a means for children to plan activities and strategies and therefore aid their development. Private speech is the use of language for self-regulation of behavior. 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 (1987) notes that private speech does not merely accompany a child’s activity but acts as a tool used by the developing child to facilitate cognitive processes, such as overcoming task obstacles, enhancing imagination, thinking, and conscious awareness.

Children use private speech most often during intermediate difficulty tasks because they are attempting to self-regulate by verbally planning and organizing their thoughts (Winsler et al., 2007).

The frequency and content of private speech are then correlated with behavior or performance. For example, private speech appears to be functionally related to cognitive performance: It appears at times of difficulty with a task.

For example, tasks related to executive function (Fernyhough & Fradley, 2005), problem-solving tasks (Behrend et al., 1992), schoolwork in both language (Berk & Landau, 1993), and mathematics (Ostad & Sorensen, 2007).

Berk (1986) provided empirical support for the notion of private speech. She 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.

Vygotsky (1987) proposed that private speech is a product of an individual’s social environment. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that there exist high positive correlations between rates of social interaction and private speech in children.

Children raised in cognitively and linguistically stimulating environments (situations more frequently observed in higher socioeconomic status families) start using and internalizing private speech faster than children from less privileged backgrounds. Indeed, children raised in environments characterized by low verbal and social exchanges exhibit delays in private speech development.

Childrens’ use of private speech diminishes as they grow older and follows a curvilinear trend. This is due to changes in ontogenetic development whereby children are able to internalize language (through inner speech) in order to self-regulate their behavior (Vygotsky, 1987).

For example, research has shown that childrens’ private speech usually peaks at 3–4 years of age, decreases at 6–7 years of age, and gradually fades out to be mostly internalized by age 10 (Diaz, 1992).

Vygotsky proposed that private speech diminishes and disappears with age not because it becomes socialized, as Piaget suggested, but rather because it goes underground to constitute inner speech or verbal thought” (Frauenglass & Diaz, 1985).

Applying Vygotsky's Theory to the Classroom

Vygotsky's approach to child development is a form of social constructivism, based on the idea that cognitive functions are the products of social interactions.

Vygotsky emphasized the collaborative nature of learning by the construction of knowledge through social negotiation. He rejected the assumption made by Piaget that it was possible to separate learning from its social context.

Vygotsky believed everything is learned on two levels. First, through interaction with others, and then integrated into the individual’s mental structure.

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.

Teaching styles based on constructivism mark a conscious effort to move from ‘traditional, objectivist models didactic, memory-oriented transmission models’ (Cannella & Reiff, 1994) to a more student-centred approach.

Traditionally, schools have not promoted environments in which the students play an active role in their own education as well as their peers'. Vygotsky's theory, however, requires the teacher and students to play untraditional roles as they collaborate with each other.

Instead of a teacher dictating her meaning to students for future recitation, a teacher should collaborate with her students in order to create meaning in ways that students can make their own (Hausfather, 1996).

For example, a pupil and teacher begin a task with different levels of skill and understanding. As each adjusts to the perspective of the other, the teacher has to translate their own insights in a way that is within the grasp of the pupil, and the pupil develops more complete understanding of a task or concept.

The pupil is able to internalize the 'how to do it' part of a task as part of their private or inner speech dialog. Vygotsky referred to this process as intersubjectivity.

ZPD

Because Vygotsky asserts that cognitive change occurs within the zone of proximal development, instruction would be designed to reach a developmental level that is just above the student's current developmental level.

Vygotsky proclaims, "learning which is oriented toward developmental levels that have already been reached is ineffective from the view point of the child's overall development. It does not aim for a new stage of the developmental process but rather lags behind this process" (Vygotsky, 1978).

Appropriation is necessary for cognitive development within the zone of proximal development. Individuals participating in peer collaboration or guided teacher instruction must share the same focus in order to access the zone of proximal development.

"Joint attention and shared problem solving is needed to create a process of cognitive, social, and emotional interchange" (Hausfather,1996).

Furthermore, it is essential that the partners be on different developmental levels and the higher level partner be aware of the lower's level. If this does not occur, or if one partner dominates, the interaction is less successful (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather, 1996).

Vygotsky's theories also feed into the 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.

Scaffolding and reciprocal teaching are effective strategies to access the zone of proximal development.

Reciprocal Teaching

A contemporary educational application of Vygotsky's theory is "reciprocal teaching," used to improve students' ability to learn from text. In this method, teachers 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.

Reciprocal teaching allows for the creation of a dialogue between students and teachers. This two way communication becomes an instructional strategy by encouraging students to go beyond answering questions and engage in the discourse (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather, 1996).

A study conducted by Brown and Palincsar (1989), demonstrated the Vygotskian approach with reciprocal teaching methods in their successful program to teach reading strategies. The teacher and students alternated turns leading small group discussions on a reading. After modeling four reading strategies, students began to assume the teaching role.

Results of this study showed significant gains over other instructional strategies (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather,1996). Cognitively Guided Instruction is another strategy to implement Vygotsky's theory. This strategy involves the teacher and students exploring math problems and then sharing their different problem solving strategies in an open dialogue (Hausfather,1996).

The physical classroom, based on Vygotsky's theory, would provide clustered desks or tables and work space for peer instruction, collaboration, and small group instruction. Learning becomes a reciprocal experience for the students and teacher.

Like the environment, the instructional design of material to be learned would be structured to promote and encourage student interaction and collaboration. Thus the classroom becomes a community of learning.

Scaffolding

Also, Vygotsky theory of cognitive development on learners 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.

A teacher's role is to identify each individual’s current level of development and provide them with opportunities to cross their ZPD.

A crucial element in this process is the use of what later became known as scaffolding; the way in which the teacher provides students with frameworks and experiences which encourage them to extend their existing schemata and incorporate new skills, competences and understandings.

Scaffolding describes the conditions that support the child’s learning, to move from what they already know to new knowledge and abilities.

Scaffolding requires the teacher to provide students the opportunity to extend their current skills and knowledge.

During scaffolding the support offered by a adult (or more knowledgeable other) gradually decreases as the child becomes more skilled in the task. As the adult withdraws their help, the child assumes more of the strategic planning and eventually gains competence to master similar problems without the aid of a teacher or more knowledgeable peer.

It is important to note that this is more than simply instruction; learning experiences must be presented in such a way as to actively challenge existing mental structures and provide frameworks fo

Five ways in which an adult can “scaffold” a child’s learning:

  1. Engaging the child’s interest
  2. Maintaining the child’s interest in the task e.g. avoiding distraction and providing clear instructions on how to start the task.
  3. Keeping the child’s frustration under control e.g. by supportive interactions, adapt instructions according where the child is struggling
  4. Emphasising the important features of the task
  5. Demonstrating the task: showing the child how to do the task in simple, clear steps.

As the child progresses through the ZPD, the level of scaffolding necessary declines from 5 to 1.

The teacher must engage students' interest, simplify tasks so they are manageable, and motivate students to pursue the instructional goal. In addition, the teacher must look for discrepancies between students' efforts and the solution, control for frustration and risk, and model an idealized version of the act (Hausfather, 1996).

Challenges to Traditional Teaching Methods

Vygotsky's social development theory challenges traditional teaching methods. Historically, schools have been organized around recitation teaching. The teacher disseminates knowledge to be memorized by the students, who in turn recite the information back to the teacher (Hausfather,1996). However, the studies described above offer empirical evidence that learning based on the social development theory facilitates cognitive development over other instructional strategies.

The structure of our schools do not reflect the rapid changes our society is experiencing. The introduction and integration of computer technology in society has tremendously increased the opportunities for social interaction.

Therefore, the social context for learning is transforming as well. Whereas collaboration and peer instruction was once only possible in shared physical space, learning relationships can now be formed from distances through cyberspace.

Computer technology is a cultural tool that students can use to mediate and internalize their learning. Recent research suggests changing the learning contexts with technology is a powerful learning activity (Crawford, 1996). If schools continue to resist structural change, students will be ill prepared for the world they will live.

Critical Evaluation

Vygotsky's work has not received the same level of intense scrutiny that Piaget's has, partly due to the time-consuming process of translating Vygotsky's work from Russian. Also, Vygotsky's sociocultural perspective does not provide as many specific hypotheses to test as did Piaget's theory, making refutation difficult, if not impossible.

Perhaps the main criticism of Vygotsky's work concerns the assumption that it is relevant to all cultures. Rogoff (1990) dismisses the idea that Vygotsky'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 for all types of learning. Indeed, in some instances, observation and practice may be more effective ways of learning certain skills.

There is much emphasis on social interaction and culture but many other aspects for development are neglected such as the importance of emotional factors e.g. the joys of success and the disappointments and frustration of failure, these acts as motivation for learning.

Vygotsky overemphasised socio-cultural factors at the expense of biological influences on cognitive development, this theory cannot explain why cross-cultural studies show that the stages of development (except the formal operational stage) occur in the same order in all cultures suggesting that cognitive development is a product of a biological process of maturation.

Vygotky’s theory has been applied successfully to education. Scaffolding has shown to be an effective way of teaching (Freund, 1990) and based on this theory teachers are trained to guide children from they can do to the next step in their learning through careful scaffolding. Collaborative work is also used in the classroom, mixing children of different level of ability to make use of reciprocal / peer teaching.

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About the Author

Saul Mcleod, PhD, is a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Mcleod, S. (2022, May 05). Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html

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Lev Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory