Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development
Cognition and development
Vygotsky saw cognitive development as affected by the learning of norms and attitudes of the culture a child is raised in. At the cultural level children benefit from the knowledge of previous generations, gained through interactions with caregivers, while at the interpersonal level cognitive development occurs first on a social level, through interaction between people, (interpsychological) and second on an individual level within a child (intrapsychological).
A key part of Vygotsky’s theory is the zone of proximal development (ZPD), the distance between current and potential ability. Cultural influences and knowledgeable others acting as mentors push children through the ZPD and on to tasks beyond their current ability. Another key concept is scaffolding, where cognitive development is assisted by sensitive guidance, with children given clues as to how to solve a problem, rather than being given the actual solution. Vygotsky saw semiotics as assisting cognitive development through the use of language and other cultural symbols, acting as a medium for knowledge to be transmitted, which turn elementary mental functions into higher ones. Such development occurs in several phases: social speech (birth to 3 years) — involving pre-intellectual language, egocentric speech (3—7 years) — involving self-talk/thinking aloud, and inner speech (7+ years) — where self-talk becomes silent and internal and language is used for social communications.
Fig 11.2 Scaffolding involves children being assisted by mentors who give clues as to how to solve a problem rather than giving actual solutions
Woods & Middleton (1975) assessed the role of the zone of proximal development by observing mothers using various strategies to support 4 year olds in building a model that was too difficult for the children to do themselves. Mothers who were most effective in offering assistance were ones who varied their strategy according to how well a child was doing, so that when a child was progressing well they gave less specific help, but when a child struggled they gave more specific guidance until the child made progress again. This highlights the concept of the ZPD and shows that scaffolding is most effective when matched to the needs of a learner, so that they are assisted to achieve success in a task that previously they could not have completed alone.
• Wertsch et al. (1980) found that the amount of time children under 5 years of age spent looking at their mothers when assembling jigsaws decreased with age, illustrating the progression through scaffolding to self-regulation.
• McNaughton & Leyland (1990) observed mothers giving increasingly explicit help to children assembling progressively harder jigsaws, which illustrates how scaffolding and sensitivity to a child’s ZPD aids learning.
• Freund (1990) asked children aged 3 and 5 years to help a puppet decide what furniture should be put in different rooms of a doll’s house. Half the children worked alone, while half worked with their mothers providing guidance. The results showed that children given guidance performed best, which suggests that Vygotsky’s idea of scaffolding, where children work with guidance, is superior to Piaget’s idea of discovery learning, where children learn through independent exploration.
• Berk (1994) found that children talked to themselves more when doing difficult tasks, supporting the idea of egocentric speech. This decreased with age in line with Vygotsky’s idea of progression to inner speech.
Different cultures emphasise different skills and learning goals and yet Vygotsky’s concepts of sensitive guidance, scaffolding and ZPD are applicable in all cultures, suggesting his concepts to be ’culture fair’.
Unlike Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky’s theory can explain the influence of the social environment, through culture and language, upon cognitive development.
There are strong central similarities between Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories and it has been suggested that combining the two may be desirable and feasible to gain a fuller understanding of children’s cognitive development.
Similarly to Piaget, Vygotsky’s theory has stimulated research into cognitive development that has greatly increased our knowledge of this area.
Although there is relatively less research evidence to support Vygotsky’s theory, the fact that it focuses more upon the processes involved in, rather than the outcomes of, cognitive development makes it harder to test.
Vygotsky’s theory was developed within a collectivist culture and is more suited to such cultures, with their stronger element of social learning, than individualistic Western cultures. The theory can also be accused of over-emphasising the role of social factors at the expense of biological and individual ones. Learning would be faster if development depended on social factors only.
Similarly to Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky’s theory has applications in education, especially his concepts of scaffolding and peer tutoring, where a child is perceived as an apprentice learner who is assisted in their learning rather than being taught directly.