Vygotsky's Theory

Paul Main

What is the significance of Lev Vygotsky's ideas for child development and classroom practice?

What was Vygotsky's Theory?

Lev Vygotsky's theory highlights the role of culture in a child's development of cognitive abilities such as reasoning and communication. According to Vygotsky's theory, in a society adults foster cognitive development in children by engaging them in meaningful and challenging activities.

Vygotsky was a key figure in Soviet Psychology who studied children and developed his own theories about how learning occurs. He believed that learning happens in three different stages: cognitive, motoric, and sociocultural. Cognitive learning involves thinking about concepts and ideas; motoric learning involves doing things; and sociocultural learning involves interacting with others.

Vygotsky's theory suggests that each stage builds upon the previous ones, and he believed that adults learn from observing children. He also believed that children learn through play, and that play is a form of sociocultural learning. His work has become an integral part of contemporary psychology.

To illustrate his point, Vygotsky gave the example of a boy playing with blocks. When the boy plays with the blocks, he learns how to manipulate objects, and then later uses those skills to build structures. As he continues to play, he begins to understand the concept of gravity and eventually develops the ability to read books.

The history behind Vygotsky's Theory

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) argued that culture has a significant impact on the mental abilities of a child. Eminent psychologists, Gesell and Piaget thought that cognitive development and psychological functions originate from a child directly. Although Lev Vygotsky acknowledged the active role of intrinsic development, he believed that concepts, writings, and oral language arising from a cultural development elicit the topmost level of mental abilities and psychological functions. He proposed that a child's social interactions with more learned peers and adults may support a child’s potential development in mental functions. He believed that in absence of interpersonal instruction, a child’s psychological functions may not show much progress as their mental processes would be based solely on their discoveries.

Vygotsky fundamentally used his ideas to explain how children develop. His theories were based on observations of children in Russia during the 1920s and 1930s. However, they still hold true today. Children begin life as blank slates, and they learn through observation and imitation. Later, they begin to create their own thoughts and opinions, and they continue to grow socially until adulthood. According to his theory, the child learns by observing and imitating adults. When a child sees someone else doing something, he or she tries to imitate the behaviour. As the child continues to observe and imitate, he or she begins to understand the concept behind the behaviour.

This process of imitation and observation is called internalization. Internalization allows us to transfer knowledge from one person to another. For example, if you teach someone how to play tennis, you can expect him or her to eventually become a tennis player. Vygotsky also believed that the way in which we communicate with others influences the way in which we learn. According to him, we learn by talking to others and listening to what they say. We then try to apply what we learned to similar situations in the future.

In addition to studying children, Vygotsky also spent much of his career working with teachers. His goal was to develop ways in which teachers could enhance students' abilities to learn. One of his ideas was that teaching methods must be adapted to fit the individual student. His theories have influenced educational practices worldwide. However, his ideas have also been criticized. Some argue that Vygotsky's emphasis on interaction between teacher and learner is too simplistic. Others believe that his focus on external factors rather than internal ones is misguided.

Regardless of whether you agree with his theories, Vygotsky's influence cannot be denied. His ideas continue to shape education today.

Lev Vygotsky
Lev Vygotsky

What is Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development?

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the most famous mental development concept proposed by L.S. Vygotsky. According to this theory, ZPD indicates the wide variety of cognitive processes a child demonstrates under the supervision of an expert but is unable to perform on his own.

What are the stages of ZPD?

A learner may fall into one of the three distinct categories of mental functions, based on their skill set. For successful psychological functions and learning, the expert must know the specific state of a learner's mental functions.

Tasks a learner cannot perform in presence of assistance

Outside of a learner's ZPD, are the tasks that the learner's current ability does not allow him to complete, even in presence of an expert's help. According to L. S. Vygotsky theory of development here, the expert may decrease the level of difficulty and look for more appropriate tasks according to the mental development and skill level of the learner.

  1. Tasks a learner may perform in presence of Assistance

A learner is nearly mastering a skill set needed to complete a task, nevertheless, still needs the supervision of an expert. L. S. Vygotsky believes that here, an expert may apply different techniques to enable the learner better understand the skills and concepts needed to perform a task without assistance.

  1. Tasks a Learner may perform in absence of Assistance

A learner has mastered the skill set needed to complete a task independently. The assistance of an expert is not needed. According to L. S. Vygotsky after reaching this stage, an expert may increase the individual level of task difficulty to find a child's next ZPD.

Vygotsky zone of proximal development
Vygotsky zone of proximal development

What is scaffolding?

According to L.S. Vygotsky theory of development, when a learner is in their ZPD, an expert will provide appropriate assistance to the learner to help him accomplish a new skill or task. According to scaffolding theory, resources, tools, instructions, and activities, that are used to support the learning process are referred to as scaffolding.

Scaffolding refers to the structure provided by other learners while learning a skill. When someone learns a new skill, they usually follow a series of steps to master it. These steps are called "scaffolds," and they provide a foundation upon which the learner builds his or her skills.

When teaching students, teachers typically create scaffolds to guide them through each lesson. Scaffolds help students understand concepts and remember details, and they also allow teachers to focus on specific areas of instruction rather than having to cover every single topic.

Following are the examples of scaffolding that instructors may use:

  1. Asking a learner about any other ways to solve a problem, asking him what must be done next, and asking about his psychological processes!
  2. Modelling how to complete a similar task or completing a similar problem;
  3. Arranging learners in groups to discuss a new topic before engaging in it;
  4. Using visual resources to allow students to conceptualize a task before engaging in it;
  5. Asking learners to use past learning for a better understanding of more complex subject areas;
  6. According to psychological development theories, using metacognitive web tools such as self-correcting and self-assessment of material to help learners understand concepts;

Ultimately, the learner can complete the entire task after the removal of the scaffolding.

Although, scaffolding is most frequently linked with the L. S. Vygotsky ZPD, it was not a concept initially proposed by the soviet psychologist. This term was introduced by other researchers in human development and mental functions who were in Vygotsky circle. They expanded on L.S. Vygotsky original theories of human development.

What are the Potential Challenges of using Scaffolding in the Classroom?

Scaffolding theory can be significantly useful to teach students a new skill or a mental development concept. However, if the teacher is unaware of the unique ZPD of each student, application of scaffolding theory may not be very effective.

While scaffolding is helpful for both teachers and learners, it can be difficult to implement effectively. Teachers who try to force students to memorize facts and procedures risk creating rote learners who lack creativity and critical thinking. At the same time, teachers who don't scaffold enough risk failing to teach students anything at all.

To avoid falling into either trap, teachers must strike a balance between giving students plenty of scaffolding and allowing them to develop creative solutions to problems. Fortunately, there are several ways to achieve this balance. For instance, teachers can give students practice exercises that require them to solve problems creatively. They can also ask questions that require students to explain their reasoning. Finally, they can model effective problem-solving techniques and then give students opportunities to apply them themselves.

In addition to helping teachers build stronger relationships with their students, scaffolding helps learners become independent thinkers. Because scaffolding provides a framework for learning, students can explore topics on their own terms. This allows them to gain confidence in their abilities and encourages them to seek out additional resources if necessary.

The following outlines some of the difficulties teachers may face while using scaffolding in the classroom.

  • It takes more time or/and resources to understand the cognitive skills level and attainment level of each student;
  • It can be challenging to understand each student's ever-changing ability level and mental development in a class of too many students;
  • According to social development theory, some teachers may find it difficult to understand the fundamental role of mental concepts such as scaffolding technique in child development;
  • According to psychological development theories, it can be a difficult task to uphold enough cognitive flexibility to perform scaffolding technique;
  • According to theories of developmental psychology, teachers have to be extremely organized to implement scaffolding technique into their teaching.

What is Private Speech?

According to psychology of emotions and social speech, people talk to themselves internally. In most cases, they talk to themselves when they are struggling with something wrong or when they feel emotional or trying to recall something. The same goes for the process of development in children. This was interpreted by Piaget as Egocentric Speech.

Egocentric Speech occurs due to a child's inability to perceive things from another's viewpoint. But, the developmental psychology expert Vygotsky believed that in egocentric speech, children talk to themselves to clarify thoughts or to show problem-solving skills. According to Social Development Theory when children are learning to use words while they are thinking, they tend to do so in a loud voice before finally engaging in inner speech or Private Speech while their lips are closed.

Thinking with a loud voice finally becomes thought alongside internal speech, and people start to talk to themselves only while trying to remember something or learn something. Vygotsky believes that the inner speech of people is opposite to external speech. Internal speech is not as detailed as the external speech that one uses to communicate with others.

Piaget vs Vygotsky on cognitive development

According to Piaget's cognitive development theory, when teachers take control of the learning process in children it puts the individual development of children in a passive position. According to developmental psychology, teachers may explain abstract ideas without actual understanding of the child's developmental level, and instead, children just repeat back whatever they hear. According to Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory, children must be provided with opportunities for psychological development and exploring concepts of independent learning. On the other hand, according to Vygotsky's Cognitive Theory, children can reach a superior cognitive developmental level of language acquisition even in absence of teachings, taught by more learned people. Both, developmental psychologists Piaget's and Vygotsky 's theories considerably contribute to people's understanding of how children learn and perform cognitive functions.

Vygotsky and Piaget
Vygotsky and Piaget

The relationship between learning and social interaction

According to Vygotsky's theory of development, social interaction between a learner and someone more knowledgeable is a must for successful social learning and social development. The more knowledgeable individual can be an adult or a more knowledgeable peer. According to Lev Vygotsky mental abilities theory, when children are learning a new concept it is crucial to have an adult as an instructor. However, if some learners grasp the topic, while other learners are still in their ZPD, peer interaction may develop the most effective cognitive awareness environment for students psychological development, cognitive functions and learning process.

Lev Vygotsky's theory of development and concept of zones of proximal development is considered his most crucial contribution to formal degree education. This is a useful concept because teachers may use it to assess a child's developmental progress. An effective teacher recognizes a child’s ZPD and supports the child to stretch beyond it. Afterwards, the teacher slowly withdraws support when the child can perform the task through independent learning. Scaffolding technique can be considered as the temporary support that teachers or parents may use to help a child do a task.