Lev Vygotsky: theory of development


Social development theory

Vygotsky's ideas centre around social interaction having a fundamental role in the development of cognition. Vygotsky differed from Piaget in stressing the importance of social context.

Unlike Piaget, who believed that childrens' development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky believed that social learning precedes development.

Vygotsky's theories involved a sociocultural approach to cognitive development. He explained that individual development can't be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded.

Vygotsky also differs from Piaget in regards to the emphasis he places on the role of language in cognitive development.

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Effects of culture: psychological tools

Vygotsky claimed that babies are born with the basic materials/abilities for intellectual development. Vygotsky referred to 4 "elementary mental functions" - attention, sensation, perception, and memory.

Through interaction with the socialcultural envinroment, these basic functions are developed into more sophisticated and effective mental processes.

Vygotsky also refers to tools of intellectual adaption, these allow children to use the basic mental functions more effectively. These tools are culturally determined, e.g memory mnemonics, mind maps. Tools of intellectual adaption therefore vary from culture to culture.

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Social influences

Vygotsky claims that much vital learning by the child occurs through social interaction with a skillful tutor; this tutor may model behaviours or provide verbal instructions for the child. The tutor is likely to be a parent/primary caregiver. Vygotsky refers to these instructions as cooperative or collaborative dialogue. The child aims to understand the actions or instructions provided by the tutor, then internalises the information, using it to guide their own performance.

Shaffer's (1996) example is usually referred to here. Shaffer's example is: a young girl is given her first jigsaw puzzle. Alone, her performance at trying to solve the puzzle is poor. The father then sits with the girl and describes some basic strategies i.e finding all the corner pieces first, and offering encouragement. As the girl internalises this information and becomes more competent at solving the puzzle, he allows her to work more independently. Vygotsky would explain that this type of social interaction involving cooperative or collaborative dialogue promotes cognitive development.

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More Knowledgeable Other (MKO)

The MKO refers to someone who has a better understanding, or higher ability level than the learner, in regards to a particular task, process, or concept.

The MKO is generally a parent, teacher, or older adult but doesn't necessarily have to be. Many times, a child's peers or an adult's children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience. The MKO fosters development by demonstrating ideas, values, strategies, and speech patterns that a child can internalise and learn from.

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Zone of proximal development (ZPD)

The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to the second key concept in Vygotsky's work: the Zone of Proximal Development.

The ZPD is the difference between what a learner can do without help, and what they can do with help. There are 3 zones; the first zone contains things the child can achieve independently. The second zone contains things the child cannot achieve independently, but can with the help from a skilled tutor. The third zone contains things that cannot be achieved, even with help.

Vygotsky stated that a child follows an adult's example, and will gradually develop the ability to do certain tasks without help. Vygotsky believed that the role of education is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thus encouraging and advancing their individual learning.

Scaffolding, developed by Jerome Bruner, is often linked to the ZPD. Scaffolding is the process that enables a child to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal that would be otherwise beyond their unassisted efforts. This aid eventually tapers off as it becomes unnecessary, alike to how a scaffold is removed from a building after completion.

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Vygotsky and language

Like cognitive development, Vygotsky believed language also developed from social interactions. Vygotsky (1962) explained that language plays 2 critical roles in cognitive development: it is the main means by which adults transmit information to children, and language itself becomes a powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.

Vygotsky differentiates between three forms of language: social speech (external communication used to talk to others), private speech (directed to the self), and private speech transforming to silent inner speech. Vygotsky considered private speech as the transition point between social and inner speech. He regarded private speech as a means for children to plan activities and strategies, and is an aid to their development. Private speech can also be used for self-regulation of behaviour.

Vygotsky (1987) notes that private speech doesn't just accompany a child's activity, but also acts as a tool used by the developing child to faciliate cognitive processes, such as problem solving, enhancing imagination, thinking, and conscious awareness.

Winslet et al (2007) explained that children use private speech most often during intermediate difficulty taks because they're attempting to self-regulate by verbally planning and organising their thoughts.

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Comparing Vygotsky and Piaget

Although Piaget and Vygotsky's theories are often thought of as complementary to one another, they differed on many points, making it clear they were mutually exclusive theories. There are several key areas they differed on.

  • Difference on the emphasis and importance of culture. Vygotsky studied child development alongside cultural mediation, looking at how development was directed by the role of culture. This was an important and fundamental mechanism in his work, whereas for Piaget, it was not considered vital.
  • Developmental experiences as individual or collaborative. Much of Vygostky's work involves the child interacting with someone who has more knowledge about an area of interest.
  • Difference on egocentrism. Vygotsky talked about self-directed speech being a key part of the social learning process, and regarded it a healthy part of development. Piaget associated egocentric speech with immaturity, explaining children gradually grow out of it as they mature.
  • Role of language: this was key in Vygotsky's theory, whereas it didn't hold much importance in Piaget's theories. Vygotsky believed language also develops from social interactions, and viewed it as man's greatest tool.
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