Vygotsky Theory: Lev Vygotsky's Cognitive Development Ideas, Explained

What Is Lev Vygotsky’s Theory Of Cognitive Development?

December 9, 2020 Updated April 1, 2021

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Atikah Akhtar/Unsplash

As parents, we naturally worry about our kids. Mothers of cave-dwelling children probably stressed over whether their little ones would accidentally be stepped on by a woolly mammoth (or something like that, based on science and definitely not The Flintstones). This makes sense and is rooted in our instincts to do whatever we need to do to make sure that our child survives. But at some point, this moved beyond a concern for their immediate safety to being anxious about whether they’re hitting all of their developmental milestones “on time.” And tied up in all of that is the Vygotsky theory.

Before we go any further, a reminder: All children develop at their own pace! Comparing your own kid’s progress to that of their peers — which, unfortunately, social media makes far too easy — isn’t going to help. But where do we get the ideas of what constitutes “normal” development, anyway? A lot of it stems from various theories of cognitive development, including the one developed by Lev Vygotsky.

Here’s what to know about this influential theory.

What is Vygotsky’s cognitive development theory?

Born in the Russian Empire in 1896, Lev Vygotsky was a psychologist and theorist who wrote six books over the span of a single decade before dying from tuberculosis at the age of 37. And while his work didn’t become well-known in Western countries until the 1970s, it has since been regarded as some of the foundational concepts in developmental psychology.

For Vygotsky, cognitive and social development are inextricably linked. Specifically, he believed that the way children’s brains and thought processes develop has to do with their social interaction, an idea also known as sociocultural theory. Based on this idea, he suggests that culture plays a major role in the formation and development of specific abilities, like learning, memory, attention, and problem-solving. Vygotsky explains that culture-specific tools (primarily, learning styles) also influence how children think about the world around them.

What are the key concepts of Vygotsky’s theory?

Two of the major components of Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development are the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and scaffolding:

Zone of Proximal Development

According to Vygotsky, every person has two stages of skill development: what they’re able to accomplish themselves, and what they can accomplish with the help of an experienced mentor or teacher. Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development — also known as the zone of potential development (either way, ZPD works) — is based on the idea that when teaching a child new skills, they learn best from situations where they can almost complete a task on their own but aren’t quite there. That’s where having a teacher, parent, or someone else comes in, gradually offering less assistance until the child has mastered the task on their own.

Scaffolding

Vygotsky referred to the teaching methods used to help a child learn a new skill as “scaffolding.” Per Merriam-Webster, scaffolding is defined as “a system or framework of support provided by an instructor to help a student reach the next level of learning.” These can be applied in a variety of different academic subjects, like math, science, and language, as well as in situations involving the development of motor skills, like sports. Examples of scaffolding techniques include when teachers or parents:

  • Work one-on-one with students
  • Use visual aids
  • Provide examples
  • Offer clues
  • Use models

Ultimately, one of the main takeaways from Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development is that, in his view, kids can only learn so much by discovering things on their own. In order for them to truly progress, they need to work with teachers or mentors who can help guide them in their quest for knowledge and new skills.

Who is Jean Piaget? 

If you’ve heard of Lev Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, it’s important to know who Jean Piaget is as well. Think of Piaget as one of the godfathers of cognitive development. He was a Swiss psychologist and genetic epistemologist. He studied how children advanced intellectually throughout their early years. His work was a large contribution to the world of child development and education. 

He is most famous for creating the four stages of cognitive development, which include the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operation stage. However, he was criticized because he didn’t use a diverse group of kids in his research. Some even concluded he underestimated the intelligence of children. 

Lev Vygotsky quotes

Can’t get enough of Vygotsky? If you appreciate his teachings and want to know more, hear from the man himself and check out these quotes below.

“What a child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow.”
“In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”
“Somehow our society has formed a one-sided view of the human personality, and for some reason, everyone understood giftedness and talent only as it applied to the intellect. But, it is possible not only to be talented in one’s thoughts but also to be talented in one’s feelings as well.”
“What a child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow.”