Piaget’s is not the only theory of children’s cognitive development. Another that has received increased attention in recent years was proposed by Lev Vygotsky.

Like Piaget, the Russian Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) also believed that children actively construct their knowledge. Vygotsky was born in Russia in the same year as Piaget was born, but he died much younger than Piaget did, at the age of thirty-seven. Both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s ideas remained virtually unknown to American scholars for many years, being introduced to American audiences through English translations in the 1960s. In the last several decades, American psychologists and educators have shown increased interest in Vygotsky’s views.

Vygotsky’s Assumptions:

Three claims capture the heart of Vygotsky’s view:

  • The child’s cognitive skills can be understood only when they are de-velopmentally analyzed and interpreted;
  • Cognitive skills are.mediated by words, language, and forms of discourse, which serve psychological tools for facilitating and transforming mental activity; and
  • Cognitive skills have their origins in social relations and are embedded in a sociocultural backdrop (Social constructivism)

1st” Assumption:

For Vygotsky, taking a developmental approach means understanding the child’s cognitive functioning by examining its origins and transformations from earlier to later forms. Thus, a particular mental act such as using inner speech cannot be viewed accurately in isolation but should be evaluated as a step in a gradual developmental process.

2nd Assumption:

Vygotsky’s second claim, that to understand cognitive functioning it is necessary to examine the tools that mediate and shape it, led him to believe that language is the most important of these tools. Vygotsky argued that in early childhood, language begins to be used as a tool that helps the child plan activities and solve problems.

3rd Assumption:

Vygotsky’s third claim was that cognitive skills originate in social relations and culture. Vygotsky’s portrayed the child’s development as inseparable from social and cultural activities. He believed that the development of memory, attention, and reasoning involves learning to use the inventions of society, such as language, mathematical systems, and memory strategies. In one culture this could consist of learning to count with the help of a computer; in another it could consist of counting on one’s fingers or using beads..Vygotsky’s theory has stimulated considerable interest in the view that knowledge is situated and collaborative. That is, knowledge is distributed among people and environments, which include objects, artifacts, tools, books, and the communities in which people live. This suggests that knowing can best be advanced through interaction with others in cooperative activities.Within these basic claims, Vygotsky articulated unique and influential ideas about the relation between learning and development. These ideas especially reflect his view that cognitive functioning has social origins. One of Vygotsky’s unique ideas was his concept to the zone of proximal development.

Zone of proximal development (ZPD) is Vygotsky’s term for the range of tasks that are too difficult for children to master alone but that can be learned with guidance and assistance from adults or more skilled children. Thus, the lower limit of the ZPD is the level of problem solving reached by the child working independently. The upper limit is the level of additional- responsibility the child can accept with the assistance of an able instructor. Vygotsky’s emphasis on the ZPD underscores his belief in the importance of social influences, especially instruction, on children’s cognitive development.

Vygotsky (1987) gave this example of how to assess a child’s ZPD: Suppose that, by an intelligence test, the mental age of two children is determined to be eight years. With Vygotsky in mind, we can’t stop there. To go on, we seek to determine how each of these children will attempt to solve problems meant for older children. We assist each child by demonstrating, asking leading questions, and introducing the initial elements of the solution; with this help or collaboration with the adult, one of these children solves problems at the level of a twelve-year-old child and the other solves problems at the level of a nine-year-old child. This difference between the children mental ages and the level of performance they achieve in collaboration with an adult defines the zone of proximal development. Thus, the ZPD involves the child’s cognitive skills that are in the process of maturing and his or her performance level with the assistance of a more-skilled person. Vygotsky (1978) called these the “buds” or “flowers” of development, to distinguish them from the “fruits” of development, which the child already can accomplish independently. An application of Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development is the one-on-one tutoring provided by New Zealand teachers in the Reading Recovery program. Tutoring begins with familiar work, gradually introducing unfamiliar aspects of reading strategies, and then passing increasing control of the activity to the child.


Closely linked to the idea of zone of proximal development is the concept of scaffolding, a technique of changing the level of support. Over the course of a teaching session, a more-skilled person (teacher or more-advanced peer of the child) adjusts the amount of guidance to fit the student’s current performance level. When the task the student is learning is new, the more-skilled person might use direct instruction. As the student’s competence increases, less guidance is given.

Dialogue is an important tool of scaffolding in the zone of proximal development Vygotsky viewed children as having rich but unsystematic, disorganized, and spontaneous concepts. These meet with the skilled helper’s more systematic, logical, and rational concepts. As a result of the meeting and dialogue between the child and the skilled helper, the child’s concepts become more systematic, logical, and rational.

Language and Thought:

Vygotsky (1962) believed that young children use language not only for social communication but also to plan, guide, and monitor their behavior in a self-regulatory fashion. The use of language for self-regulation is called inner speech or private speech, for Piaget, private speech was egocentric and immature, but for Vygotsky it was an important tool of thought during the early childhood years.

Vygotsky believed that language and thought initially develop independently of each other and then merge. He said that all mental functions have external or social origins. Children must use language to communicate with others before they can focus inward on their own thoughts. Children also must communicate externally and use language for a long period of time before the transition from external to ‘internal speech takes place. This transition period occurs between the ages of three and seven and involves talking to oneself. After a while, the sell-talk becomes second nature to children and they can act without verbalizing. When this occurs, children have internalized their egocentric speech in the form of inner speech, which becomes their thoughts. Vygotsky believed that children who use a lot of private speech are more socially competent than those who don’t. He argued that private speech represents an early transition in becoming more socially communicative.

Vygotsky’s view challenged Piaget’s ideas on language and thought. Vygotsky said that language, even in its earliest forms, is socially based, whereas Piaget emphasized young children’s egocentric and nonsocial speech. For Vygotsky, when young children talk to themselves they are using language to govern their behavior and guide themselves, whereas Piaget believed that such self-talk reflects immaturity. Researchers have found support for Vygotsky’s view of the positive role of private speech in children’s development.

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