Theories of Cognitive Development: Lev Vygotsky.

November 3, 2010 at 3:00 pm 45 comments

For my previous post on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, click here.

As with my previous post, I will explain a little about Vygotsky and his life before we look at his theory.

Lev Vygotsky

Born in Orsha, a part of the Russian Empire (now known as Belarus) on 17th November 1896, Vygotsky was a pioneer of psychology; he contributed much important research to the field. He graduated from the Moscow State University in 1917, and went on to work in many research facilities and and educational establishments in Moscow, Leningrad and Kharkov. His extensive research into cognitive development has lead his theory to be one of the most important of it’s kind. He believed that children’s thinking is affected by their social knowledge, which are communicated by either psychological (language, number, art) or technical (books, calculator) means. He was – and sometimes still is – often criticised for being an idealist and his overemphasis of the role of language in thinking (more on the criticisms later). He was also a very popular author, with 6 volumes of his work being classed as major.

Vygotsky rarely conducted research; he was more focused on constructing the best possible theory on the transfer of knowledge. Unfortunately, Vygotsky died at the very young age of 37 in 1934 from Tuberculosis, but once his main work was translated to English in 1962, it had a major impact on other psychological research in similar fields.

Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development.

As stated above, Vygotsky believed children’s thinking is affected by their knowledge of the social community (which is learnt from either technical or psychological cultural tools). He also suggested that language is the most important tool for gaining this social knowledge; the child can be taught this from other people via language. He defined intelligence as “the capacity to learn from instruction”, which emphasises the fact there is a requirement for a more knowledgable other person or ‘teacher’. He referred to them as just that: the More Knowledgable Other (MKO). MKO’s can be parents, adults, teachers, coaches, experts/professionals – but also things you might not first expect, such as children, friends and computers.

He described something known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which is a key feature of his theory. There are two levels of attainment for the ZPD:

  • Level 1 – the ‘present level of development’. This describes what the child is capable of doing without any help from others.
  • Level 2 – the ‘potential level of development’. This means what the child could potentially be capable of with help from other people or ‘teachers’.

The gap between level 1 and 2 (the present and potential development) is what Vygotsky described as this zone of proximal development. He believed that through help from other, more knowledgable people, the child can potentially gain knowledge already held by them. However, the knowledge must be appropriate for the child’s level of comprehension. Anything that is too complicated for the child to learn that isn’t in their ZPD cannot be learnt at all until there is a shift in the ZPD. When a child does attain their potential, this shift occurs and the child can continue learning more complex, higher level material.

ZPD Diagram

Diagram to demonstrate the ZPD.

Another important feature of this theory is scaffolding. When an adult provides support for a child, they will adjust the amount of help they give depending on their progress. For example, a child learning to walk might at first have both their hands held and pulled upwards. As they learn to support their own weight, the mother might hold both their hands loosely. Then she might just hold one hand, then eventually nothing. This progression of different levels of help is scaffolding. It draws parallels from real scaffolding for buildings; it is used as a support for construction of new material (the skill/information to be learnt) and then removed once the building is complete (the skill/information has been learnt).

Woods and Middleton (1975) studied the influence of instruction with their experiment. They provided 3-4 year olds with a puzzle which was beyond their comprehension on their own. The mother then provided different levels of assistance for the child:

  • L1 – General verbal instruction (“Very good! Now try that again.”)
  • L2 – Specific verbal instruction (“Get four big blocks”)
  • L3 – Mother indicates material (“You need this block here”)
  • L4 – Mother provides material and prepares it for assembly
  • L5 – Mother demonstrates the operation

After the session, the child was assessed on whether they could construct the pyramid on their own. Results showed that when children were given varied support from mothers (low levels of support when the child was doing well, and high levels when the child struggled) they were able to construct the pyramid on their own. However, when the mother consistently provided the same support, they seemed to make the child conclude the activity was beyond their comprehension and the child soon lost interest in constructing the pyramid. This shows the importance of providing the correct level of scaffolding when teaching a learner.

The Woods & Middleton (1975) Puzzle.

The Woods & Middleton (1975) pyramid puzzle.

As a final point, Vygotsky looked at the role of egocentric/private speech. This is, for example, when a child will sit on their own and speak their thoughts out loud as they play. He suggested a child is regulating and planning their behaviour at this point: “Where is the block? I can’t find it. Oh well, I’ll use this block.” He called these ‘monologues’.

By 7 years, these monologues become internalised and the child becomes a “verbal thinker”, which is what most adults can do with no problem. When we are faced with a problem, and we’re alone, we quite often think through the problem – but in our heads. Children before 7 will do this out loud. This verbal thinking forms the basis for higher level, more abstract thinking (planning, reasoning, memorising, evaluating).

Quick summary

  • Emphasised the role of a teacher in cognitive development, and the need to have support from a More Knowledgable Other, or MKO.
  • The zone of proximal development, or ZPD, differentiates between a learner’s current development and their potential development when being taught from a MKO.
  • Scaffolding provides an effective way to reach potential levels of development, but only when different levels of assistance are given when required.
  • Social and cultural tools are an important means of gaining intelligence.
  • There is a close link between the acquisition of language and the development of thinking.
  • Internalising monologues, and therefore becoming a verbal thinker, is a stepping stone to higher levels of thinking.

Vygotsky provided a very influential theory which provided a meaningful social context in the development of learning. The emphasis of cultural knowledge was something unseen in Piaget’s theory. In the next post, I will be evaluating both of the cognitive theories (that of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky) and then comparing and evaluating them against each other.

Take care!


Entry filed under: Cognitive, Developmental. Tags: , , .

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45 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Katia Takkou  |  October 29, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Dear Sam can you please tell me in which book you found the Zone of Proximal Development diagram!!

    Thank you!!

    • 2. Sam Eddy  |  October 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm

      I made the diagram myself in Microsoft Word! If you wish to use it then please feel free to download a copy of the image.


  • 3. Cirina  |  January 9, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    Dear Sam
    U just made my day!thanks a lot, I actually understand more about all of this thanks to u.


    • 4. Sam Eddy  |  January 28, 2012 at 12:54 am

      I’m so pleased to hear this article has made a difference!

  • 5. pearl  |  January 15, 2012 at 7:50 am

    sam please tell me more abt the cognitive apprenticeship and cooperative learning

  • 6. Eldina  |  January 20, 2012 at 8:57 am

    dear Sam, informaition you provide is usefull. big up!

    • 7. Sam Eddy  |  January 28, 2012 at 12:55 am

      Thanks for your compliment, it’s much appreciated!

  • 8. Annie  |  February 8, 2012 at 2:14 am

    That was very helpful! Thanks so much! I appreciate it!

  • 9. Livingstone Were  |  February 10, 2012 at 9:08 am

    I am pleased to have this article on Vygotky’s theory. A step a head to me as a scholar.

    • 10. Sam Eddy  |  March 14, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, I’m glad the article has achieved it’s academic purpose.

  • 11. ms.shammmas  |  February 13, 2012 at 8:19 am

    hi, do you know if someone has done a current research about Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development?

    • 12. Sam Eddy  |  March 14, 2012 at 5:21 pm

      I’ve not particularly looked into it to be honest, but try exploring psychology research databases (if you’re at Uni). There’s bound to be a plethora of research into his theory from the past few years.

  • 13. Helen  |  March 10, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Such an informative article. You’ve managed to consolidate my understanding of Vygotsky, in an easy to understand format. Thank you. 🙂

    • 14. Sam Eddy  |  March 14, 2012 at 5:15 pm

      Thank you!
      I’m glad the article has helped.

  • 15. Saliha Beleulmi  |  March 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Thank you Sam for this page; it helps me a lot to prepare my lesson for tomorrow. Just needs further explanation for the implication of his theory for teachers.

    • 16. Sam Eddy  |  March 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm

      Hi there, I’m glad the article has helped!
      Thanks also for the ideas for improvement, perhaps when I have more time I’ll edit the post to include more about implications for education.

  • 17. felicia p  |  March 17, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Found your article to be very informative and reader friendly. Has helped me to gain a clearer understanding of Vygotsky’s theory; esp the zone of proximal development. Thank you.

  • 18. Lakshman  |  March 25, 2012 at 2:27 am

    Its interesting.

  • 19. MN  |  August 2, 2012 at 6:46 am

    Hi Sam, your article is very informative. Can i reference it for my assignment?

    • 20. Sam Eddy  |  August 6, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Of course you can, that’s absolutely fine!

  • 21. christine ann thomas  |  August 6, 2012 at 9:11 am

    the article is profound. please may i know in which work of Vygotsky is the ZPD spoken of.

  • 22. Adam M. Kyne  |  September 21, 2012 at 3:09 am

    Sam–great Work, is it possible to reference or present your sources?

    • 23. jj jonson  |  November 2, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      this article sucked

      • 24. Sam Eddy  |  November 2, 2012 at 10:37 pm

        Piss off, nobody cares.

      • 25. Errant Knight  |  November 10, 2015 at 9:39 pm

        to say that this article sucked means you either have 3 PhD’s or you did not understand a single word.

  • 26. joonimmer1  |  October 7, 2012 at 5:31 am

    sam, can you tell what book do you use for vygotsky theories??i really need know what your sources for my assignment, please….

    • 27. Sam Eddy  |  November 2, 2012 at 10:38 pm

      Hi there! I tend to use University lecture slides as opposed to books. I’d recommend finding any decent book on Child Psychology – it’ll definitely have both Piaget and Vygotsky in!

  • 28. Gingging  |  October 12, 2012 at 10:22 am

    This really helps me accomplish my assignments..great!

    • 29. Sam Eddy  |  November 2, 2012 at 10:37 pm

      I’m glad to hear that! Good luck with your studies.

  • 30. Hayley  |  December 30, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    Hi Im finding this so helpful for my essay. Could you possibly tell me what book you got the reference “the capacity to learn from instruction” from? Thank you

  • 31. Atiku Rano #BUK  |  January 6, 2015 at 10:08 am

    With reference from the relevant and available text, justify the claim that theory of cognitive development: the language, culture and ZPD influence the teaching and learning Process

  • 32. del  |  April 12, 2015 at 5:54 am

    Clear, concise and not boring at all.
    Thank You

  • 33. Getting Started in Gifted Education Research |  |  June 6, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    […] 2. Lev Vyotsky was a Belarusian psychologist whose work has become the foundation of much research and theory in cognitive development. His theory is compared to that of Piaget here.  He developed a concept known as the Zone of Proximal Development which is outlined with specific reference to gifted learners here. […]

  • 34. Kate  |  June 29, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    I am delighted to have stumbled upon this page which also led me to your post on Piaget. Your writing has certainly helped me to gain a clearer understanding of these two theorists and for that I am very grateful. Thank you.

  • 35. DENIS KIETI  |  July 22, 2015 at 8:20 am

    Dear Sam,
    your compiled work is inspirational.

  • 36. mweene muyanga  |  July 29, 2015 at 11:31 am

    differentiate between cognitive development of piaget and vygosyky

  • 37. finnane solomon  |  September 13, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    thanks for this fine article, Sam

  • […] defined intelligence as “the capacity to learn from instruction“, meaning that a teacher or “More Knowledgeable Other” must also be present. A […]

  • 39. annie  |  October 27, 2015 at 11:48 am

    i’m glad to ‘ve read it.the theory is presented in such a simple way that even a beginner can understand it without further explanation by a teacher or expert.

  • 40. Adoh  |  February 19, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Dear Sam, I am very happy to find your link and read your explanations in simple terms. Thank you, I will keep reading you. But could you please tell me if you know people dealing with the influence of the MKOs’ attitude in language teaching and learning? If not, could I use it as a research topic?

    Thank you very much!!!

  • 41. Vuyokazi  |  March 12, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks Sam this helped me a lot when doing my assignment.

  • 42. Fredrick  |  April 19, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Can’t wait for your next post because I want to understand their implications in a classroom environment comparing the$

  • 43. Mundia Sitali  |  May 10, 2016 at 12:35 am

    Hi sam.. This article is excellent n of great help. Loving it more.

  • 44. Mujere Madius  |  May 15, 2016 at 4:21 am

    Workdone, this document is reach in tangible facts in as far as the intellectual developments takes place in infants up until they develop to adulthoods. The role of culture and socialization plays funtamental contributions to cognitive development in real life situations. By so this theory the base for cognitive development since many psychologists try to reason around Vygosky’s work thereby come with other versions. I appreciate this kind of research.

  • 45. MICHELLE  |  May 26, 2016 at 10:08 am



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