Lev Vygotsky (“the
Mozart of Psychology”)
For most of his
adult life Vygotsky lived in Communist Russia, as a result his work
shows definite Marxist influences emphasising the role of social
interaction and culture. Vygotsky died of tuberculosis at the age of
37, as a result his theory never went through the later developments
that Piaget’s and others were afforded.
Vygotsky is regarded by many to have been a genius and well ahead of
that a child's cognitive development cannot be seen as occurring in a
social vacuum. In Vygotsky's view, our ability to think and reason by
ourselves and for ourselves (what he terms inner speech or verbal
thought) is the result of a fundamentally social process. At birth, we
are social beings who are capable of interacting with others, but able
to do little either practically or intellectually by or for ourselves.
Gradually, however, we move towards self-sufficiency and independence,
and by participating in social activities, our capabilities become
transformed. For Vygotsky, cognitive development involves an active
internalisation of problem-solving processes that takes place as a
result of mutual interaction between children and those with whom they
have regular social contact (initially the parents, but later friends
of internalisation is the reverse of how Piaget (at least initially) saw
things. As Rogoff (1990) has noted, Piaget's idea of 'the child as a
scientist' is replaced by the idea of 'the child as an apprentice', who
acquires the knowledge and skills of a culture through graded
collaboration with those who already possess such knowledge and skills.
According to Vygotsky (1981):
'Any function in
the child's cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First
it appears on the social plane, and then on the psychological plane.'
Tools, functions mediated activity and
Elementary mental functions.
These are present at birth and
include sensation and attention. They only show minor development by
experience. Elementary mental functions are present in all animals.
Higher mental functions.
These include problem solving,
mathematical ability, language and thinking.
This is required to take us from
Elementary to Higher functions. By cultural influence Vygotsky meant
books, teachers, parents, experts or anything capable of passing on the
knowledge of previous generations.
If, as Vygotsky suggests, higher mental
functions are shaped by culture then different cultures should develop
different higher mental functions; Gredler (1992) studied children in
Papua New Guinea who learn a counting system of 1 to 29 based on
different parts of the body. Clearly this is not going to be good for
dealing with large numbers and as a result adults in the culture
struggle with problems involving larger numbers.
Vygotsky regarded higher mental
functions such as thought, language, mathematical ability and problem
solving as the “tools” of the culture in which the child lives. Tools
are passed down from the older generations so are culturally mediated.
There is some
confusion in the texts as to the difference between a ‘tool’ and a
‘sign.’ According to most texts a ‘tool’ is something that causes a
physical change in the World, whereas a ‘sign’ creates an internal,
psychological change. However, generally the word ‘tool’ is used now to
represent both. Imagine me emailing you to complete a piece of
homework. Is that a tool (it causes you to do something physical) or is
it a sign (since it creates a psychological state of unhappiness)?
Once passed on these concepts become
internalised by the child so essentially become part of the child’s
cognitive repertoire. The child can then bring about change itself, not
directly but through use of these tools, hence the term mediated
activity. The change has been mediated via a tool.
Getting to the point!
The simple example Vygotsky himself
provides is how the child learns to acquire to tool of pointing.
Initially this begins as an attempt to grasp something out of reach and
is directed at the desired object. A parent or local friendly person
seeing the child’s attempts will kindly put the object of its desire
closer so it can be reached. Gradually the child internalises this
grasping behaviour realising it can get results so that it quickly
becomes a deliberate action in its own right. The grasp is now weakened
so it will have no chance of reaching the object and is instead directed
at a local person rather than the object. It has become the tool of
Language is essential for the
communication of knowledge and ideas and as a result is crucial to
To understand the theory it is
important to understand the role language plays in thinking. In fact
the two are closely linked. Try to imagine thinking without the use of
words. Vygotsky believed that thought and language develop through a
number of stages:
Ages 0 to 2 years
Language and thought develop
independently of one another. Children have pre-verbal thought and
Ages 2 to 7 years
Language has two functions:
Monitor and direct internal
thoughts (inner voice we talk to ourselves with).
Communicate thoughts to
others (talk out loud).
When children at this age talk out loud
to themselves, Vygotsky saw this as a sign that the child is unable to
distinguish between the two.
Age 7 onwards
The child distinguishes between the two
functions of language. Private language is used for thinking and
becomes central to cognitive development. Vygotsky believed that
language and thinking developed in parallel to each other. As our
ability to use language improves this increase our ability to think and
Language is crucial both for thinking
and communication. A child that has developed language is better able
to understand that other children think differently (intersubjectivity).
RESEARCH STUDY: Inner speech (Berk, 1994)
Convincing evidence of the important role played by inner speech was
reported by Berk (1994). She found that 6-year-olds spent an average of
60% of the time talking to themselves while solving problems in
mathematics. Those whose speech contained numerous comments about what
needed to be done on the current problem did better at mathematics over
the following year. This confirmed Vygotsky's view that self-guiding
speech can make it easier for children to direct their actions.
Presumably this self-guiding speech made it easier for the children to
focus their attention on the task in hand.
Vygotsky argued that private speech diminishes and becomes more internal
as children's level of performance improves. Berk (1994) discussed a
study in which 4- and 5-year-old children made Lego models in each of
three sessions. As predicted by Vygotsky, the children's speech become
increasingly internalised from session to session as their model-making
performance improved. Thus, as Vygotsky assumed, private speech is of
most value to children when they are confronted by novel tasks that they
do not fully understand.
usefulness of Vygotsky's theory of diminishing speech depends on what is
meant by “speech”. For example, some children with learning difficulties
are unable to speak but can perform quite well on many types of tasks.
Children who are born profoundly deaf and whose families are hearing
often find speech difficult or impossible to acquire but their
intelligence is sometimes unimpaired. It is interesting to speculate
whether deaf children of deaf parents who grow up using sign language
can use signs as their own private “speech” in the way intended by
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
‘…what is the zone of proximal
development today will be the actual zone of development tomorrow. That
is, what a child can do with some assistance today she will be able to
do by herself tomorrow.’ (Vygotsky 1978).
The ZPD is the difference between what
the child can achieve on its own and what it can achieve with help from
others. For learning to occur the adult must provide a challenge that
is beyond what the child is capable of, but within its capabilities with
help, i.e. within its ZPD. Therefore the child can only reach its full
potential with help from others. The help given by adults is referred
to as scaffolding. It is important that the child is challenged
without experiencing failure.
Goodman and Goodman (1990), writing about how teachers teach in the ZPD,
offer five guidelines. They say that teachers should:
Interfere as little as possible.
Offer a useful hint.
Direct attention at an anomaly.
Direct attention at an overlooked bit of information.
Moss (1992) found that parents,
particularly mothers, provide scaffolding. Moss observed three
Mother instructs the child
with strategies it would not otherwise know.
Mother encourages child to
keep using useful strategies.
Mother persuades the child to
drop inappropriate strategies.
et al (1997) found that fathers are as good at scaffolding. They also
found that children that have received scaffolding show longer-term
improvements in skills as well as immediate improvements.
Freund (1990) conducted a study in which children had to decide which
items of furniture should be placed in particular houses of a dolls
house. Some children were allowed to play with their mother in a similar
situation before they attempted it alone (zone of proximal development)
whilst others were allowed to work on this by themselves (Piaget's
discovery learning). Freund found that those who had previously worked
with their mother (ZPD) showed greatest improvement compared with their
first attempt at the task. The conclusion being that guided learning
within the ZPD led to greater understanding/performance than working
alone (discovery learning).
Greenfield and Lave (1982; see PIP p.540) found that experts teaching
Mexican girls to weave structured their assistance so that girls stayed
within their ZPD, with successful outcomes.
and Strayer (1990) also suggest that mothers of gifted children tend to
encourage the use of metacognitive strategies more than mothers of
children within the normal range of
Development. What is more, Bouffard-Bouchard and Gagne´ -Dupuis (1994)
say that the educational practices of mothers with low social status are
less directed towards stimulating their children’s zone of proximal
development than those displayed by mothers with high social status, and
that this influences pre-school children’s cognitive development.
researchers e.g. Wertsch (1985) show that more successful adult
scaffolders adapt their scaffolding strategies to both their children’s
development and the difficulty of the task. Wertsch (1985) reported that
adults adjust their speech to children’s language skills, and that when
they use demanding cognitive expressions that are beyond the child’s
current skills they tend to be ineffective.
Learning through play
(courtesy of Wikipedia)
Through play the child develops abstract meaning separate from the
objects in the world which is a critical feature in the development of
higher mental functions.
famous example Vygotsky gives is of a child who wants to ride a horse
but can’t. As a child under three, the child would show outward signs of
frustration, but around the age of three the child's relationship with
the world changes:
"Henceforth play is such that the explanation for it must always be that
it is the imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires.
Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness
of the very young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a
specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of
consciousness, it originally arises from action." (Vygotsky, 1978)
have all seen children stand astride a stick and pretend they are riding
a horse. For Vygotsky the stick is acting as a ‘pivot.’ A pivot is a
way a child learns to separate words from the objects they represent. A
young child thinks ‘horse’ and can’t imagine anything other than a real
horse. Through play sticks can also represent ‘horse.’
children get older, their reliance on pivots such as sticks, dolls and
other toys diminishes. They have internalized these pivots as
imagination and abstract concepts through which they can understand the
Another aspect of play that Vygotsky referred to was the development of
social rules that develop, for example, when children play house and
adopt the roles of different family members. Vygotsky cites an example
of two sisters playing at being sisters. The rules of behavior between
them that go unnoticed in daily life are consciously acquired through