the last IQ test: Cynthia St Charles   Cognition and Development


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Introduction to Piaget
Piaget's Stages
Piaget: General Evaluation
Applying Piaget to Education
Vygotsky's Theory
Evaluation of Vygotsky
Applying Vygotsky to Education
Bruner's Theory
Applying Bruner to Education
Moral Development
Kohlberg's Theory of Morality
Eisenberg and Gilligan
Theory of Mind
Perspective Taking
Mirror Neuron System






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 his time. 

Vygotsky believed 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 and classmates).

Vygotsky's process 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 internalisation

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.

Cultural influence.  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 pointing. 



Language is essential for the communication of knowledge and ideas and as a result is crucial to Vygotsky’s theory.

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 pre-intellectual speech.


Ages 2 to 7 years

Language has two functions:

1.       Monitor and direct internal thoughts (inner voice we talk to ourselves with).

2.       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 vice versa.  

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.


The 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 Vygotsky.

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:

1. Interfere as little as possible.

2. Ask a question.

3. Offer a useful hint.

4. Direct attention at an anomaly.

5. Direct attention at an overlooked bit of information.



Research evidence

Moss (1992) found that parents, particularly mothers, provide scaffolding.  Moss observed three strategies:

1.       Mother instructs the child with strategies it would not otherwise know.

2.       Mother encourages child to keep using useful strategies.

3.       Mother persuades the child to drop inappropriate strategies.

Conner 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.

Moss 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.


Many 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.

The 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)

We 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.’  

As 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 world.

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 play.

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