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Lev Vygotsky's Theory of Child Development - Gowrie NSW

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Vygotsky's Theory of Sociocultural Cognitive Development

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist and teacher who developed a theory about how our social interactions influence our cognitive development. This is known as Lev Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development.

Vygotsky developed his theories around the same time as Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was developing theories about cognitive development, but they differ on almost every point. Some of Vygotsky's work is still being translated from Russian.

What is Vygotsky's Theory?

Vygotsky's social development theory asserts that a child's cognitive development and learning ability can be guided and mediated by their social interactions. His theory (also called Vygotsky's Sociocultural theory) states that learning is a crucially social process as opposed to an independent journey of discovery. He expands on this by stating that a child's learning benefitted greatly from being guided by a more knowledgeable community member - such as a parent or teacher.

Vygotsky's sociocultural theory also suggested that children internalise and learn from the beliefs and attitudes that they witness around them. He believed that culture played an important role in shaping cognitive development and therefore that this development varied across cultures. Vygotsky also stressed the importance of language as the root of all learning.

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Vygotsky's Concept of More Knowledgable Other (MKO)

Lev_VygotskyVygotsky's theory places importance on guiding children's learning through their interaction with a more knowledgeable other (MKO). The more knowledgeable other could be anyone with a greater understanding of the task or concept that the child is trying to complete or learn. Most often, this would be a parent, caregiver or teacher, but it could also be a peer or mentor.

This theory is not limited to academic or educational learning, it can also be applied to recreational learning such as playing games or using technology. In these circumstances, a peer or older child is more likely to be the more knowledgeable other.

The MKO could also be an electronic tutor, in cases where a program is set up to guide learning using voice prompts or videos.Vygotsky's theory places importance on guiding children's learning through their interaction with a more knowledgeable other (MKO). The more knowledgeable other could be anyone with a greater understanding of the task or concept that the child is trying to complete or learn. Most often, this would be a parent, caregiver or teacher, but it could also be a peer or mentor.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

The concept of the zone of proximal development, also known as the zone of potential development, is used to explain a child's potential for cognitive development and ability when they are guided through a task, rather than asked to do it in isolation.

If a child is presented with a task that is slightly above their ability level, the zone of proximal development (ZPD) refers to their ability to do it with the assistance of a more knowledgeable person. This theory explains why some skills present themselves in a more social context when the child is unable to display them by themselves.

The zone of proximal development can be described as the distance between the actual developmental level when assessed independently and the level of potential development when assessed in collaboration with peers or mentors or under the guidance of a teacher.

Zone of Proximal Development Stages

The ZPD can be broken down into three distinct stages in terms of a learner's skillset. In order to improve the ability of the learner the more knowledgeable person must understand what stage they are in.

Tasks a learner can accomplish without assistance

This refers to tasks that the learner can perform independently. If the learner has reached this stage, the teacher or mentor will need to increase the level of difficulty of the task in order to facilitate further learning.

Tasks a learner can accomplish with assistance

This is referred to as their zone of proximal development. In this stage, the learner needs the guidance of a more knowledgeable other to help them complete the task.

Tasks a learner cannot accomplish with assistance

This refers to tasks that the learner cannot do, even with the guidance of a more knowledgeable person. If the learner's ability falls within this range, the level of difficulty may need to be decreased to accommodate their skillset.

Vygotsky and Instructional Scaffolding

Oslo Mudgee DSCF0235-1Instructional scaffolding is a method of guided learning that helps a student learn by pairing them with an educator. The educator should have greater experience with the task or process than the student, but they should also have an understanding of the level that the student is at and how they can address this level.

Techniques for instructional scaffolding might include using visual aids (such as diagrams), providing examples, working one-on-one with the student and providing feedback. The aim of scaffolding is to create an environment in which the student feels comfortable asking questions until they can perform the skill without any help.

The benefits of scaffolding include:

  • Motivating the learner by helping them through aspects of a task that they have trouble with

  • Minimising frustration for the learner

  • Providing a faster learning experience

Elementary Mental Functions

Vygotsky's child development theory refers to four 'elementary mental functions' as the innate abilities that we are born with. These are:

  • Attention

  • Sensation

  • Perception

  • Memory

These abilities are then developed into 'higher mental functions' through social interaction with our community.

Vygotsky also coined the term 'tools of intellectual adaptation', which refers to problem-solving strategies and ways of thinking that children internalise by observing and interacting with more knowledgeable members of society. Different cultures exemplify different tools of intellectual adaptation because they are affected by the beliefs and values of the individual culture.

Social Influences and Cognitive Development

Vygotsky believed that learning was an active process rather than a natural or passive one. HeOslo Afterschool DSCF8149 said that children were engaged in their own learning and discovery but that their development happened in the context of social interaction, as opposed to independently or in isolation.

Vygotsky also highlighted the importance of learning that was guided by an educator or teacher. Techniques used by the teacher to engage the child, such as performing the task themselves as an example or providing verbal instruction was referred to as cooperative or collaborative dialogue by Vygotsky theory.

The process of learning would occur when the child understood the information, absorbed it and then used it to guide their own performance.

An example of this guided learning could be if a child is given a sudoku puzzle to complete. A teacher or mentor might recommend certain strategies to the child, such as ruling out places where each number could go based on the horizontal and vertical positions of that number, or writing possible options in the corner of the box in pencil to cull the possibilities. The teacher might also encourage the child to ask questions and provide prompts when they are close to the right answer. As the child develops a higher level of competency, the teacher reduces their influence.

This technique is also very common in sport, in which a coach or more capable peer will often demonstrate the skill before asking the student to do it themselves. For example, if a soccer teacher was teaching students how to dribble a ball through a set of cones, they may perform this skill first themselves in order to set an example for the students.

Vygotsky's Theory and Language

Vygotsky viewed language as an essential tool for communication and that culture and behaviour was understood through language. Vygotsky also highlighted the critical role that language plays in cognitive development.

Vygotsky's theory says that social interactions help children develop their ability to use language. According to Vygotsky, there are three stages/forms of language in the development process:

  • Social speech - communication between children and others (usually from the age of 2)

  • Private speech - private speech that is directed to the self but has not yet been internalised (usually from the age of 3)

  • Silent inner speech - a child's internal monologue (usually from the age of 7)

Vygotsky and Private Speech in Young Children

Vygotsky was the first philosopher to describe the stage of private speech and explain it as the transition between initial external speech and silent inner speech. He also stated that thought and language were initially separate functions before they merge at around the age of 7. Vygotsky believed that this process of internalising speech and language was essential to cognitive development.

Vygotsky viewed private speech as a method of self-regulating behaviour. He also viewed language as a tool for accelerating understanding. For these reasons, he suggested that children who engaged in private speech regularly would be more socially competent than those who did not. Private speech could be useful in helping a child exercise their imagination, practise problem-solving skills and organise their thoughts.

Private speech was observed to appear at times when a child was having difficulty with a task and was then used to guide their thoughts and actions by first organising and regulating them.

Jean Piaget theorised that private speech diminished with age as the child became more socialised and adjusted more to external speech, which is in contrast with Vygotsky's theory that private speech disappeared as it became silent and internalised.

Application of Vygotsky's Theory in the Classroom

Vygotsky's sociocultural theory about child development says that cognitive development occurs as a result of social interactions. In this way, learning is innately collaborative. He believed social negotiation was essential for building knowledge and understanding concepts.

Vygotsky proposed that it was not possible to separate learning in the formative years from its social context. Initial learning occurred through social interaction and then the individual processed it internally.

Contemporary modes of applying this theory to the classroom mark a movement away from traditional memory-oriented models of teaching. 'Reciprocal teaching' refers to a method in which teachers and students work together to clarify and understand a concept before students are asked to repeat it or apply it in another context.

For example, if a teacher is reading a paragraph of text on a certain topic, they will go through a process together with the students of:

  • Summarising

  • Questioning

  • Clarifying; and

  • Predicting

This collaborative process allows the students to learn the concept in a social context before internalising it to apply on their own.

Zone of Proximal Development Examples and Applications in the Classroom

Techniques such as 'scaffolding' and/or 'apprenticeship' are often used in the classroom to describe ways of teaching students according to their level of ability. In these techniques, the learning is structured by a teacher and then their role is gradually reduced over time. This allows the student to learn the topic within their zone of proximal development and then adjust to doing it by themselves or tackling something of a higher difficulty.

Vygotsky's theories also inform some contemporary ideas about collaborative learning, such as pairing students of lesser capability with more advanced peers to help them learn. Discussion groups, small group learning and collaborative exercises in schools and universities have also been incorporated in response to theories about social learning.

Understanding what tasks, processes and concepts might lie in a student's zone of proximal development is also essential. For example, if a student has just mastered their times tables, basic division might be in their ZPD, but they're probably not ready for exponents yet. The teacher might provide an example of a division problem and the method to solve it before asking the student to try it themselves. This linear structure of learning is applied in most schools and institutions.

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Challenges to Application of Vygotsky's Theory in the Classroom

Although applications of the zone of proximal development can be beneficial to helping students learn in the classroom, there can be some challenges for teachers. These challenges include:

  • Not having enough time or resources to address the needs of each student or help them individually

  • The possibility of misjudging a student's ZPD and causing frustration for both the student and teacher

  • There might be too many students in the class, with rapidly changing ability levels, to employ this method successfully

  • If the lesson plan is not arranged to accommodate scaffolding beforehand, it might be difficult to be flexible enough to follow through with it

  • If the teacher is unaware of the student's ZPD, the techniques might not be effective

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Critical Evaluation of Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

Some of Vygotsky's work is still being translated from Russian, so there is some speculation about whether or not his theories had further elaboration or development. It is a time-consuming process to translate it from Russian, so his theories have not suffered as much criticism yet. His theories also lack specificity so can be difficult to directly refute.

A large amount of criticism is directed towards Vygotsky's assumption that his theory of cognitive development and social interaction is culturally universal. Additionally, he provides no specific hypothesises to be tested in order to prove or disprove his theories.

Vygotsky's ideas also do not address the impact of biology or genetics on cognitive development, nor do they address a child's emotional development.

However, there is plenty of evidence to support the suggestion that collaborative learning can be more effective than isolated learning. Additionally, mentoring and teaching children by pairing them with more knowledgeable peers or more adults is also known to have positive results.

Criticisms of Vygotsky

Lack of experimental tests

Vygotsky mostly used observation methods to support his theories, which has invited criticism about the validity of his findings. He also only vaguely defined social interaction and never stated the best method for engagement.

Active participation in learning

Vygotsky's theory about active participation in learning does not account for some circumstances in which children experience slower cognitive growth. Other philosophers have suggested that genetics should be factored in and that the results of passive learning should not be negated.

Social interaction

Some psychologists and philosophers are critical of Vygotsky's determination that socialisation was key to learning language and culture. This theory does not explain why some children learn and develop slowly, despite having strong social support. The vagueness of his theories has been criticised, with some suggesting that they were underdeveloped.

Language as the foundation of learning

Vygotsky's theory that language was a crucial tool of social interaction and therefore a crucial tool for learning has also been questioned. Some activities can be taught or learned using physical actions, hands-on processes, observational techniques or more creative methods, suggesting that language is not always the foundation of learning.

The zone of proximal development

The concept of the zone of proximal development is criticised for being unspecific and is sometimes viewed as a general term that encapsulates various models of cognitive development. It is also not a foolproof theory, because it doesn't explain why some students cannot perform certain tasks, even with help.

What are the Differences Between Vygotsky's Theory and Piaget's Theory?

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who developed a theory about cognitive development around the same time as Lev Vygotsky. Piaget's theory had a large influence on the study of developmental psychology. Piaget's theories are largely both more well-known and more heavily criticised than Vygotsky's, mostly because they are better understood.

There are a number of key differences between Vygotsky's human development theories and Piaget's.

The way that culture affects cognitive development

Vygotsky placed importance on the way culture affected cognitive growth and did not refer to specific stages of cognitive development. In contrast, Piaget described universal stages of cognitive development that did not vary across cultures.

Piaget's theory declared that children would have to reach each stage before being capable of certain tasks and that each stage would have to be reached in the same order. The stages he described were as follows:

  • Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years) - The infant explores their environment mostly through sensory and motor perception. They begin to develop a sense of object permanence.
  • Preoperational stage (2-7 years) - The child begins to use language to represent and understand the world. They begin to think about things symbolically but have not yet developed problem-solving abilities.
  • Concrete operational stage (7-11 years) - The child begins to develop the ability to think logically. They also develop empathy. The child begins to understand how things work and can reverse certain processes in their mind.
  • Formal operational stage (12 and over) - The child's thought process can move on from things to ideas. They can handle abstract ideas because their thoughts have been freed from most constraints. They can also speculate answers to hypothetical problems.

Learning as a social process

Vygotsky's theory on children's cognitive development centres around learning being an inherently social process. He places emphasis on social interaction as a defining element of learning and says it cannot be removed from its social context.

Vygotsky expands on this by highlighting the benefits of pairing a student with a more knowledgeable other for the purpose of guided learning. Vygotsky stated that a child's immediate environment would have a significant impact on their development.

However, Piaget theorises that learning is mostly an independent process in which the individual undertakes their own journey of exploration. He didn't do as much research or observation on the role that social interaction played in cognitive development.

The role of language

When it comes to the role of language in development, Vygotsky and Piaget have very different theories. Vygotsky states that thought and language both begin early on in development but that they are initially separate functions that merge when the child begins to use inner speech. This usually happens around 3 years of age. He goes on to say that the internalisation of language is a necessary step for cognitive development.

In contrast, Piaget says that thought comes first and language develops as a result of this.

Vygotsky also highlighted the significance of the stage in between external speech and inner speech - private speech. Piaget's theory did not place much importance on this stage and instead suggested that it was a sign of immaturity.

Adult guidance

Vygotsky highlights the importance of adults playing a role in a child's cognitive development. He emphasises this through his model of the zone of proximal development, which can be used by parents, teachers, caregivers and tutors to structure and accelerate a child's learning.

On the other hand, Piaget's theory of cognitive development highlights the role of peers in providing perspective and improving a child's social awareness and negotiation skills.

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