Vygotsky' Theory of Cognitive Development


Compare/Contrast Piaget and Vygotsky

Piaget and Vygotsky both agreed that:

  • Children's reasoning abilities develop in sequence (through age)
  • Knowledge is constructed from interaction with the environment.

However, there are also some main differences between their theories:

  • Vygotsky saw cognitive development as a social process, whereas Piaget saw it as a purely biological process that every child all over the world goes through.
  • Cultural construct - Vygotsky's theory still looks at age, but it depends on culture as well, whereas Piaget assumed that these stages happened everywhere around the world, regardless of culture.
  • Vygotsky believed that knowledge is constructed from the interaction with the environment and the culture in which we live.
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Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of Proximal Development

This refers to the gap between a child's current and potential intellectual development. Vygotsky believed that assistance allows a child to cross the ZPD and understand as much of a topic as they are capable to. He also believed that higher mental functions such as reasoning can only be acquired through interaction with a more advanced other. Cultural influences and knowledgeable others can help to push children through the ZPD and onto tasks beyond their current ability

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This is tuition/guidance given by more knowledgeable others. It helps the learning to cross the ZPD. This concept sees cognitive development as being assisted by guidance and clues for how to solve a problem, rather than giving the solution, and removing the scaffolding once the child becomes more confident and has mastered the ability. As a learner crosses the ZPD, the level of scaffolding should decline from level 5 (most help) to level 1 (least help).

Levels of help

Level 5 - most help, knowledgeable other gives a demonstration.

Level 4 - knowledgeable other prepares child for task.

Level 3 - knowledgeable other gives indication of materials.

Level 2 - knowledgeable other gives specific verbal instructions.

Level 1 - least help, knowledgeable other would give general prompts.

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ARL Evaluation of Vygotsky

Application (strength) - Vygotsky's theory has been highly influential in education in the last ten years. For example, schools and nurseries use the idea that scaffolding can help children to achieve more and at a faster rate, and social interaction has encouraged and increased the amount of group and peer work used. This is a strength because it has raised expectations of what children should achieve and helps to encourage more effective learning.

Research findings (supporting scaffolding) - Conner and Cross investigated scaffolding by observing 45 children engaging in problem solving tasks with the help of their mothers at 15, 26, 44 and 54 months. They found distinctive changes in the hrlp given to children over time: mothers used less and less direct intervention and more hints and prompts as children gained experience. This shows support for Vygotsky's theory as it shows that using less help is an effective method for teaching children.

Limitation (weakness) - the theory is hard to test, because it focusses more on the processes involved in learning rather than the outcomes of cognitive development. Therefore, this is a weakness because the theory could be considered subjective, as processes involved in learning can be quite individual.

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Evaluating Vygotsky's Theory


Different cultures emphasise different skills in learning, yet Vygotsky's concepts of sensitive guidance, scaffolding and ZPD are applicable in all cultures, suggesting that his theory is culturally-fair. This means that it can be generalised to other countries.


The theory over emphasises social factors involved in learning and ignores biological factors. Biological factors cannot be completely ignored as the play a role in learning. If not, learning would be faster if it focussed on social factors alone. this is therefore a weakness, and shows evidence for the nature vs. nurture debate.

Vygotsky suggested that the process of learning is the same in all children. This idea doesn't take into account individual differences. For example, some children are considered to be 'gifted and talented', whilst others may have learning difficulties such as dylsexia or autism. This is a weakness because children's cognitive development should be considered holistically, not simply focussing on social interaction and the use of more knowledgeable others.

The theory fails to include important emotional factors such as the frustrations of failure and the joys of success as well as failing to identify motivational factors children use to achieve particular goals, for example reinforcement. Therefore, this is a weakness because it doesn't take into account the fact that children's personality and learning styles may affect how they learn best.

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