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Discuss Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development (8 + 16 marks)
Vygotsky proposed that children are born with elementary mental functions, such as perception
and memory, which are later transformed into higher mental functions. However, recent research
suggests that higher mental functions are not uniquely human as chimpanzees have been taught
to use human language using lexigrams through a process called enculturation (Savage-Rumbaugh
Vygotsky also believed that through culture, children acquire what to think and how to process it.
Gredler's cross-cultural research supports this as it highlights the primitive counting system used
in Papua New Guinea, which suggests that development is largely dependent on culture.
Ultimately, children learn through problem-solving experiences shared with more knowledgeable
others (MKO's). This means that although the expert initially assumes the responsibility, it
gradually transfers to the child.
Vygotsky also believed that language, as a semiotic system, is of foremost importance as
conversations between MKO's and children enable the transmission of the rich body of knowledge
that exists in the culture. This means that children can develop the skill of mental representation
and can begin to communicate with themselves as well as use language to solve problems. This is
supported by Carmichael et al., who gave participants one of two labels for certain drawings and
found that when subsequently asked to draw the shape, it differed according to which label they
had been given.
On the other hand, Sinclair-de-Zwart tried to teach children, who could not conserve, to use
comparative vocabulary. She found little improvement in their ability to conserve, which
contradicts Vygotsky as his theory suggests that cultural tools should lead to cognitive
According to Vygotsky, children convert social relations into higher mental functions through
semiotic mediation. This is important for the acquisition of higher mental processes because it
frees children from the constraints of their immediate environment.
Lastly, the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the region where cognitive development takes
place. It means that, at first, learning is between people but it later becomes internalised.
McNaughton and Leyland provided evidence for the ZPD after observing young children working
on jigsaw puzzles with guidance and then a week later without. They found that children reached
a higher level of difficulty with guidance than without guidance, suggesting that the ZPD is related
to the method of instruction used during guided activities. They also found that the greatest
teaching input will occur at the edge of the ZDP, a finding which supports Vygotsky's predictions.
One limitation of Vygotsky's theory is, despite the number of research studies, there is relatively
little research when compared to the abundance of research on Piaget's theory. This is partly
because Vygotsky's theory doesn't lend itself as readily to experimentation as the concepts are
more difficult to operationalise.
A further limitation relates to the social emphasis in Vygotsky's theory. Whereas Piaget
underplayed social influences, Vygotsky may have overplayed the importance of the social
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environments; if social influence was all that was needed to advance cognitive development,
learning would be a lot faster that it currently is.
An advantage of the Vygotskian approach is that it provides a bridge between social and cognitive
domains. This makes it a more positive approach than Piaget's because it offers ways that others
can actively be involved in assisting the learner, meaning Vygotsky's theory may potentially have
more educational applications than Piaget's theory.…read more