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vygotsky's theory

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vygotsky's theory

Post by caffeine needed on Tue Sep 18, 2012 6:17 pm

Vygotsky criticised Piaget’s emphasis on the child’s interaction with the environment, claiming that Piaget ignores the role of social interaction. Vygotsky, in contrast, sees the child as an apprentice who learns through interacting with others rather than as a scientist acting alone.

Vygotsky claims that children experience abrupt changes in their ability to solve problems. This is the result of being taught culturally specific mediators by others which then allow them to think at a higher level.

There are two types of mediator – tools and signs:


E.g., Language & mathematical procedures


E.g., Writing & algebraic symbols

As these mediators develop, so does the ability to solve cognitive problems. In Vygotsky’s terminology, Elementary Mental Functions are transformed into Higher Mental Functions:

Elementary Mental Functions

E.g., Perception, Attention & Memory

Higher Mental Functions

Use mediators to think at a higher level. E.g., writing things down enhances memory (signs)/ Taught problem solving strategies (tools) mean that we do not have to start from scratch when solving problems

The Zone of Proximal Development

In Piaget’s theory, what limits what children can learn next is their level of cognitive development and biological maturity. In Vygotsky’s theory, development is limited by the size of the Zone of Proximal Development. The Zone of Proximal Development is the difference between the actual developmental level (what the child is capable of now) and potential development level; the difference between what the child can do now and what the child can do with adult guidance or that of more capable peers.

Development occurs through social interaction with those who are more capable. Studies have shown that learning can be improved when guidance is provided by more skilled peers (e.g., Rogoff, 1990).


Scaffolding is the instructional process where the adult adjusts the amount and type of support offered so that it is best suited to the child’s level of development. So scaffolding involves providing help within the zone of proximal development.

Scaffolding is not a concept that originated with Vygotsky. Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) were probably influenced by his work when they were investigating how adults support children's learning . They demonstrated that adults spontaneously scaffold children when helping them with simple puzzles. Children aged 4, 5 and 6 were given wooden blocks that fitted together to construct a pyramid and they were helped by their carers. Wood, Bruner and Ross found that the amount and type of help varied with the age of the child: The four-year-olds were given more physical guidance by the adults, whereas they gave more demonstrations to the five-year-olds and more verbal guidance to the six-year-olds.

While Vygotsky himself did not propose the notion of scaffolding, it is consistent with his ideas of learning through guided instruction.

Culture is very significant in Vygotsky’s theory, as he suggests that mediators (see above) are culturally specific. For example, formal logic and mathematics are typical of western cultures. In contrast, the 'Beami' of Papua New Guinea use body parts in a rudimentary number system (see video below - about 3min 30 seconds in). Luria (1971) also found cultural differences in problem solving techniques among literate and illiterate Uzbeks. Literate Uzbeks approached problems as logical puzzles, whereas illiterate Uzbeks used concrete examples based on past experience.


To Vygotsky, language is an important mediator (sign), although below the age of two it is used merely to communicate with others. However, after this time speech is used to solve problems, or in other words to transform elementary mental functions into higher mental functions. Vygotsky describes the following types of speech:

Social speech (below 2 years old)

Speech used for communication and has no relation to cognition. Social aspects of speech are separate from intellectual aspects.

Egocentric speech (2 – 7 years old)

Children use speech to form thoughts and regulate intellectual function. They talk to themselves, as they cannot internalise, using it to guide behaviour

Inner speech (7 years onwards)

Language is still used to regulate thoughts, but the child can use it internally

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