Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development

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Vygotsky's Theory

Social and cultural approach

Knowledge is not innate, it is gained through social intereactions

Interdependant relationship between biological development and the immediate social and cultural world surrounding the child (mostly family, peers and teachers)

The intellect has two types of functioning; the elementary and the higher mental functioning

  • Elementary functions include attention, sensation, innate reflexes and perception
  • Higher mental functions include more complex things such as, language, reasoning, decision making and memory

The influence of others drives development, but the brain must be mature enough to develop.

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Support for socio-cultural approach

Flynn (1994/1999)

  • IQ has been steadily increasing in a way that is too quick to be a genetic change.
  • This increase is down to improved access to culture via the internet
  • Therefore, culture is important for development

Savage-Rumbaugh and Fields (2000)

  • Bonoto chimpanzees were taught to use human language and to solve simple maths problems
  • The monkeys were using higher mental functions to do so, but normal chimpanzees do not use higher mental functions.
  • Suggests it is culture that allows us to use higher mental functions.
    • Does this study show cognitive development or conditioning?
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Zone of Proximal Development

  • This is the difference between the solving problem abilities of a child on their own compared to when they have the support of peers or adults.
  • Vygotsky said an individual's potential can only be achieved with the support and guidance of others 
  • This is supported by lots of research and is used within educational insitutions 
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Support for the ZPD

McNaughten and Leyland (1990)

Method: Children were given jigsaw puzzles of varying difficulty to complete. They were progressively harder so that they mother would have to help. A week later, children were given new jigsaws to complete, without the support of their parents. 

Results: The level of jigsaw puzzles completed when the children were alone was lower than when the mother was there to provide support.

Conclusion: The difference between the two is the ZPD and supports Vygotsky that you can only achieve your potential with the support of others.


There could be practice effects, counterbalancing would help with this.

The child could show demand characteristics as they will put more effort in when their mother is watching them.

The mother could take over the child's learning and decrease the reliability of results.

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Support for the ZPD (cont.)

Freund (1990)

Method: Children were asked to place miniature items of furniture in particular rooms of a doll's house. Some had completed a similar task previous with their mother (G1) and others had completed a similar task beforehand alone (G2).

Results: Those in G1 showed a better improvement than participants in G2.

Conclusion: Guided learning can lead to better understanding.

Evaluation: A doll's house is not a familar toy for boys. This leads to gender problems as boys are likely to have a lower understanding as the task is unfamilar. 

As the children are completing a similar task beforehand it could lead to a practice effect.

The children in G1 may seem to do better than G2 as they have not been placed in an unfamilar environment alone. They have had time to adjust to the sitation and will feel more comfortable when completing the task.

A control group is used so a comparison can be seen between adult support and no adult support.

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Vygotsky and Learning

Semiontic mediation

  • Cogntive development is mediated by language and other cultural symbols (semiotics)
  • These symbols are a medium in which knowledge can be passed onto the child.
  • These symbols transform the child's elementary functioning into higher mental functions.
  • This is a social process

Social and Individual Planes

  • Learning begins as a shared social activity
  • Over time, learning becomes internalised
  • The learner takes greater responsibility for their own learning.
  • This marks the shift from the social to the individual plane of learning.
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Social and Individual Planes of Learning

Wertsch (1985)

Method: Children under 5 were observed completing jigsaws with their mothers, in particular, the child's gaze. Self-regulation (use of the individual plane) was assessed by how often the child looked at the mother.

Results: The child looked at the mother more if they were younger. There was a negative correlation between age and self-regulation.

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Role of Language

Langauge is a primary form of social interaction. Adults use it to transmit their cultural knowledge to children. 

Aquisitition of language is crucial for development. Vygotsky was interested in the interaction between language and thought.

Speech and thought are two separate functions in children under 2, but then they begin to influence each other.

Language is first used to communicate with caregivers. As the child grows, language is used to guide their behaviour

  • Self-talk is used to regulate and direct themselves ages 3-7
  • Self-talk becomes internalised and is silent inner speech 7+
  • Inner speech is a cogntive tool that allows an individual to direct and moniter their thoughts and behaviours. Self-talk can be used to gain greater control over thoughts in complicated tasks.
  • There is now inner speech and external oral talk.
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Stages of Development (published in English 1987)

Children were given wooden blocks of different sizes and shapes. Each block was labelled with a nonsense symbol, such as ZAT or MHI. The children had to work out what each symbol meant, eg. ZAT could be every tall triangle and MHI could be every tall oval.

Vague Syncratic Stage

Children failed to use any concepts and showed little understanding of the concepts.

Complex Stage

Used some concept strategies, but they were unsuccessful

Potential Concept Stage

Children were systematic but tended to only focus on one aspect at a time

Mature Concept Stage

Children were systematic and concepts formed where successful

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Feral Children

  • Feral children behave and communicate using sounds and gestures similar to that of their surrogate family. This is context culture.
  • As long as the child returns to human culture before the age of 12, their language skills will develop. After 12, the language laterisation in the left hemisphere of the brain has not occured.

Edik (Germany)

Lived with dogs until he was 7, he developed language skills when he returned to human culture. There is a critical period for language acquisition and it is the age of 7.

Genie (USA)

Genie was severely privatised. She was returned to human nature at 13. She did not develop language skills beyond words and basic sentences. 

Oxanna (Russia)

She was discovered at 14. She crawled like a dog and communciated with barks and growls.

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Evaluating Vygotsky's theory of Cognitive Developm

There is lots of empircal support for his theory, however there was little support at first due to the difficulty in researching cognitive development.

Vygotsky underestimated the importance of biological and individual factors. We need a certain level of biological development to be able to complete certain things. Vygotsky carried out his research in the 1920s/1930s when he could not investigate biological factors (MRI scans didn't exist).

Vygotsky's theory explains why children can complete Piagetian tasks at earlier ages if they are made more meaningful.

He identified a relationship between cogntive development and learning.

Vygotsky's theory addresses the role of social factors that Piaget's theory ignored.

This theory can be used to explain unusual case studies, such as feral children.

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