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






Applying Vygotsky to the classroom

Vygotsky's stresses the importance of looking at each child as an individual who learns distinctively. Consequently, the knowledge and skills that are worthwhile learning varies with the individual.

The overall goal of education according to Vygotsky is to "generate and lead development which is the result of social learning through internalisation of culture and social relationships."  He repeatedly stressed the importance of past experiences and prior knowledge in making sense of new situations or present experiences.  Therefore, all new knowledge and newly introduced skills are greatly influenced by each student's culture, especially their family environment.

Language skills are particularly critical for creating meaning and linking new ideas to past experiences and prior knowledge. According to Vygotsky, internalized skills or psychological tools "are used to gain mastery over one's own behavior and cognition."  Primary among these tools is the "development of speech and its relation to thought."


ZPD and Scaffolding

Tasks that are set for the child need to be pitched at the right level.  Tasks that are too difficult are outside the child’s ZPD, and regardless of the amount of help in the form of scaffolding, the gap can not be bridged.  If the task is too easy the child will not be motivated.

During scaffolding the first step is to build interest and engage the learner. Once the learner is actively participating, the given task should be simplified by breaking it into smaller subtasks. During this task, the teacher needs to keep the learner focused, while concentrating on the most important ideas of the assignment. One of the most integral steps in scaffolding consists of keeping the learner from becoming frustrated. The final task associated with scaffolding involves the teacher modeling possible ways of completing tasks, which the learner can then imitate and eventually internalize.

As Wood et al (1976) put it; if a child is succeeding at a task then adult assistance can be reduced.  Similarly if the child is struggling then greater assistance needs to be provided.  Wood (1988) studied primary school classes and concluded that it is not possible for teachers to recognise the ZPD of 30 different students.  Instead, he argues, scaffolding is more appropriate for one on one situations.

Bliss et al (1996) looked at the ways scaffolding was being used in the science classes of 13 London Junior schools (ages 7-11).  The results showed that scaffolding was not being used effectively and reported what they described as ‘pseudo-scaffolding.

Crossing the ZPD is essential to Vygotsk’s theory.  This can only be accomplished with help from MKOs (more knowledgeable others)

MKOs provide the scaffolding or support needed. 

I picture teachers and other MKOs as a ‘ferrymen’ transporting the child from one bank to the next. 


Role of the teacher

In Vygotsky's view, the teacher has the "task of guiding and directing the child's activity."  Children can then solve novel problems "on the basis of a model they has been shown in class." In other words, children learn by solving problems with the help of the teacher, who models processes for them in a classroom environment that is directed by the teacher. In essence, "the child imitates the teacher through a process of re-creating previous classroom collaboration." 


Peer tutoring and the MKO

Vygotsky defined those who are to teach as the "More Knowledgeable Other." The MKO is anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, particularly in regards to a specific task, concept or process. Traditionally the MKO is thought of as a teacher or an older adult. However, this is not always the case. Other possibilities for the MKO could be a peer, sibling, a younger person, or even a computer. The key to MKO is that they must have more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does. Teachers or more capable peers can raise the student's competence through the zone of proximal development (ZPD).

Mixed ability groupings are essential. In the classroom situation the more advanced child can act as tutor and since he/she is of similar age they should have a good understanding of the tutees situation and should also be working in the same ZPD. 

Tudge (1993) found that the best peer tutors are those who are significantly ahead of their tutees.  However, if the tutor lacks confidence or fails to provide the necessary scaffolding then the tutoring is ineffective.

Barnier (1989) found that the performance of 6 to 7 year olds on various spatial tasks was significantly improved when they were tutored by 7 to 8 year olds.  Ellis and Gauvain (1992) found cross cultural support for peer tutoring when they compared native North American Navahos with ‘Euro-American’ children.  Both benefited from peer tutoring even though the methods used by the two cultures were very different.  The ‘Euro-Americans’ tended to give more spoken instructions and were generally less patient with their tutees.

Peer tutoring is a vital element in Shayer and Adey’s CASE project.  After being introduced to a task and provided with cognitive dissonance (disequilibrium), the students are asked to work in groups.  The idea being that the more able will be able to encourage the less able.


Schools and Society

Not only does Vygotsky see the role of the teacher as being vital he also views schools in a similar way.  For Vygotsky, society (and therefore social interaction) happens in schools.

"Schools are incorporated into the larger society and have that as their context, so that some of their activity settings are determined by this larger contextuality."

For Vygotsky the classroom is also a social organization that is representative of the larger social community ... it is the social organisation ... that is the agent for change in the individual

Schools are mini-societies!


Nichols (1996)

Does cooperative group work improve motivation?

Nichols wanted to find out if children working in a group (Vygotsky) would learn more effectively than if they were working alone in a more traditional way.

81 American high school children were randomly allocated to one of three groups (27 in each group) for the duration of an eighteen week term (sorry semester!).

Group 1: 9 weeks of cooperative group work followed by 9 weeks of traditional teaching

Group 2: 9 weeks of traditional teaching followed by 9 weeks of cooperative group work

Group 3: 18 weeks of traditional teaching

Note: the cooperative group work involved students being split into small groups and being asked to complete problem solving activities as a team. 

Motivation was assessed using a number of measures including patience, persistence and desire to please teachers and parents.

It was found that groups 1 and 2 showed significantly higher levels of motivation than group 3.  Additionally the motivation levels of groups 1 and 2 were higher when they were in the 9 week phase of group work than in the more traditional teaching environment.

This is an interesting study since it supports Vygotsky’s view on the importance of group work, social interaction and peer tutoring.  However, it also seems to answer some of the critics of Vygotsky who claim he didn’t consider the child’s motivation to learn as a variable in determining its performance.  Getting children to work in groups, as Vygotsky suggested, seems to improve their level of motivation anyway. 


Practical applications of Vygotsky’s work:

Several instructional programs were developed on the basis of the notion of ZPD including reciprocal teaching and dynamic assessment.

ZPD has been implemented as a measurable concept in the reading software “Accelerated Reader.” The developers of Accelerated Reader describe it as "the level of difficulty [of a book] that is neither too hard nor too easy, and is the level at which optimal learning takes place" (Renaissance Learning, 2007). The STAR Reading software suggests a ZPD level, or it can be determined from other standardized tests. The company claims that students need to read books that are not too easy, so as to avoid boredom, and not too hard, so as to avoid frustration. This range of book difficulty, so claimed, helps to improve vocabulary and other reading skills.


Cognitive apprenticeship

Is a system of cognitive modelling where the tutor will explain step by step and thought by thought what they are doing whilst completing a task.  The apprentice then imitates this behaviour and thinking process whilst being observed by the tutor.  At crucial stages the tutor may intervene to provide additional support or assistance (scaffolding).  As the tutee becomes more expert at completing the task the level of support provided can be reduced. 


Special needs

Vygotsky was well ahead of his time in recognising the importance of educating children with various learning impairments.  He distinguished between ‘primary defects’ (genetic or organic) and ‘secondary defects’ (due to distortions of higher mental functions caused by social factors).  When dealing with these special needs the teacher needs to be aware that it is the social consequences that are the most important.  For example when dealing with a child that is blind, recognise that their condition is genetic but address how this condition is affecting their ability to interact with others since this ultimately determines what the child is able to learn. 


To this end he believed that even severely handicapped children should be educated in the mainstream (i.e. attend ‘normal’ schools).  In the 1920s and 1930s this was almost unheard of but is far more likely to be practised today.  Again signs of how ahead of his time Vygotsky was.  He noted that "a child whose development is impeded by a disability is not simply a child less developed than his peers; rather, he has developed differently. In fact it has been suggested that he was so far ahead of his time the rest of psychology still hasn’t caught up.  For example Vygotsky believed that social and cognitive development were so interwoven that they were essentially one and the same thing. 


Moral development

Recently there have been attempts to use Vygotsky’s theory to help in our understanding of moral development.  In his book ‘Educational Psychology’ not translated into English until 1997, Vygotsky does include one chapter on moral development.  Again, as we’ll see later, Piaget came up with a more detailed theory of moral development himself. 


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