Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development

By Elisabeth Brookes

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.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

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.

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 perceived the child as a social being who is able to appropriate new patterns of thinking when learning alongside more advanced and competent individuals (parents, teachers, older siblings or peers).

He called this concept, the 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.

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.


The 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.

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 for the formation of new ones.

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.

Applying Piaget's Theory to the Classroom

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).

Learning becomes a reciprocal experience for the students and teacher. 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.

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.

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).

Scaffolding and reciprocal teaching are effective strategies to access the zone of proximal development. Scaffolding requires the teacher to provide students the opportunity to extend their current skills and knowledge.

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).

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).

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

Freund (1990): children had to decide where items of furniture should be placed in a dolls house.

Groups 1: children played with their mother in a similar situation before they performed the task alone (zone of proximal development). Group 2: children performed the task alone (Piaget's discovery learning).

Results showed the children who had previously worked with their mother (ZPD) showed greatest improvement compared with their first attempt at the task. This supports Vigotsky’s theory as it shows that guided learning within the ZPD led to greater understanding/performance than working alone (discovery learning).

Tan-Niam et al. (1998) found that children working in pairs and groups do produce more sophisticated ideas than individual children who work on problems alone which supports Vygotsky’s theory as it shows that children demonstrates “reciprocal teaching”.

Gelman (1969) trained 5 years old children who had failed volume, mass and number conservation tasks. They all passed the tests after the training, 3 weeks later there was no evidence in decline in performance. This supports Vygosky’s theory as it shows that the ability that Piaget argued where biologically based and could not be developed before the child was ready can, in fact, be developed through training.

This theory can explain cultural differences in cognitive development as different cultures and sub-cultures foster the development of different mental abilities. For example, Dasen (1994) found that Australian Aborigines developed conservation later than Europeans counterparts (between 10-13 years old) but their spatial awareness abilities developed earlier.

It can also explain why children complete successfully the tests such as conservation tests (“naughty teddy” study, McGarrigle and Donalson 1974 p.8) when the situation is made more meaningful to the child by providing a more familiar context.

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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