Lev Vygotsky cognitive development.

A Brief Background and work of Vygotsky

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist, the founder of an original holistic theory of human cultural and biosocial development commonly referred to as cultural-historical psychology and leader of the Vygotsky Circle.He was born on November 17, 1896 and died on June 11, 1934. He got married to Roza Noevna Smekhova with whom he got one child, Gita Vygodskaya. The theorist was educated at Moscow State University and Shanyavskii People’s University.

The work of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) has become the foundation of much research and theory in cognitive deveImagelopment 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 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, Vygotsky argued, “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function”.  In other words, social learning tends to precede (i.e. come before) development.

Social Influences on Cognitive Development

Like PiagetVygotsky believes that young children are curious and actively involved in their own learning and the discovery and development of new understandings. 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 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 by using it to guide or regulate their own performance.

Role of Social Interaction in Cognitive Development

The Social Development Theory (SDT) mainly asserts that social interaction has a vital role in the cognitive development process. With this concept, Vygotsky’s theory opposes that of Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory because Piaget explains that a person undergoes development first before he achieves learning, whereas Vygotsky argues that social learning comes first before development. Through the Social Development Theory, Vygotsky states that the cultural development of a child is firstly on the social level called inter-psychological, and secondly on the individual or personal level called intrapsychological.

“The more knowledgeable other” is vital.

   Prior to vygotsky’s study of the cognitive development of children, there existed several theories such as that of Jean Piaget. But lev vygotsky took a completely new look at the cognitive development of children. Vygotsky, strongly linked sociocultural interactions to the cognitive development of a child. As a result he made mention of three important features of the sociocultural interaction: The More Knowledgeable Other, the zone of proximal development and scaffolding.   As his study progressed several “test were conducted with children to concrete his point that sociocultural development plays an integral role in a child’s cognitive development.

With such a strong link between sociocultural interaction and cognitive development, “the more knowledgeable other” place a key role in this feature. The more knowledgeable other  can be parents, adults, teachers, coaches, experts, professionals, other children, friends and even the technologies that we have today such as computers, cell phones and other gadgets or simply anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. The requirement for the “more knowledgeable other” is linked to what vygotsky defined intelligence as. He defined intelligence as “the capacity to learn from instruction” he believed that children’s thinking is affected by their knowledge of the social community which is learnt from either technical or psychological

cultural tools. He also suggested that language is the most important tool for gaining this social knowledge; the child can be taught this from other people via language. According to Vygotsky, the acquisition of language (and in particular, speech) is fundamental to children’s cognitive growth because language provides purpose and intention so that behaviors can be better understood. Through the use of speech, children are able to communicate and learn from others through dialogue, which is an important tool in the Zone of proximal development. In a dialogue, a child’s unsystematic, disorganized, and spontaneous concepts are met with the more systematic, logical and rational concepts of the skilled helper. According to (Vygotsky, (1978). Social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development he felt social learning precedes development. He states: “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). It is evident that the social interaction with a child is key to their cognitive development.  Just to use an example,  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.

Vygotsky, then went on to discover another key feature, “the zone of proximal development.” The Zone of Proximal Development is described by Vygotsky as the distance between a student’s ability to perform a task under adult guidance and/or with peer collaboration and the student’s ability to solve the problem independently.   However, there are two levels of the zone of proximal development:

Level 1 – the ‘present level of development’. This describes what the child is capable of doing without any help from others.

Level 2 – the ‘potential level of development’. This means what the child could potentially be capable of with help from other people which we mention early “the More Knowledgeable Other”.

Consequently, the gap between level 1 and 2 is what Vygotsky described as this zone of proximal development. He believed that through help from other, “the more knowledgeable people”, the child can potentially gain knowledge already held by them. However, the knowledge must be appropriate for the child’s level of comprehension. Anything that is too complicated for the child to learn cannot be learnt at all until there is a shift in the Zone of Proximal Development. When a child does attain their potential, this shift occurs and the child can continue learning more complex, higher level material.

Another key feature that Vygotsky made mention of was Scaffolding.  When an adult provides support for a child, they will adjust the amount of help they give depending on their progress. Over the course of a teaching session, a more skilled person adjusts the amount of guidance to fit the child’s potential level of performance. More support is offered when a child is having difficulty with a particular task and, over time, less support is provided as the child understands and masters the task better. A prime example that was used is a parent teaching or helping a child to walk. A child learning to walk might at first have both their hands held and pulled upwards. As they learn to support their own weight, the mother might hold both hands loosely. Then she might just hold one hand, then eventually nothing. This progression of different levels of help is what vygotsky referred to as scaffolding .

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Lev Semenovich Vygotsky


James,  Samuel. Theories of Cognitive Development: Lev Vygotsky. Available at: http://psychohawks.wordpress.com/2010/11/03/theories-of-cognitive-development-lev-vygotsky/,  November 3, 2010.

Saul McLeod. Lev Vygotsky. Available at: http://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html. 2007

Sciencestage.Lev Vygotsky Zone of Proximal Development.Available at: http://sciencestage.com/v/687/lev-vygotsky-zone-of-proximal-development.html. retrieved September 26, 2012.