Lev Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development

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  • 0:11 Introduction
  • 0:52 Vygotsky's…
  • 1:55 Assumptions of…
  • 6:01 Speech and Language…
  • 10:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

The role of culture and social interactions are imperative to cognitive development, according to psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. This lesson will discuss how social interactions play a role in cognitive development of children, provide an overview of Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory and describe the stages of speech and language development.


A young child and her father are playing with a shapes toy. The young child alone cannot figure out how the various shapes can fit into the designated holes. Her father describes how each shape can only fit into its same shaped hole. The father offers her encouragement and helps her put a few pieces in their respective hole. As the child grasps the concepts, the father allows her to complete the task alone. This is an example of interaction influencing the cognitive development of a child. This lesson will focus on these social interactions and their impacts of cognitive development, according to the psychologist, Lev Vygotsky.

Vygotsky's Cultural-Historical Theory Overview

Lev Vygotsky's, cultural-historical theory of cognitive development is focused on the role of culture in the development of higher mental functions, such as speech and reasoning in children. His theory is sometimes referred to as having a sociocultural perspective, which means the theory emphasizes the importance of society and culture for promoting cognitive development.

Vygotsky emphasized the role of social interactions and culture in development
Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky believed that adults in a society foster children's cognitive development in an intentional and systematic manner by engaging them in challenging and meaningful activities. We will return to our introductory example throughout this lesson to illustrate the principles of Vygotsky's theory. In our intro, the father intentionally engaged with his child to help her understand how to fit the blocks into the designated holes. Without this assistance, she would have continued to be unsuccessful. But with the meaningful directions from her father, she was able to successfully get the blocks into the holes herself.

Assumptions of Vygotsky's Theory

Six major assumptions guide Vygotsky's theory. We will discuss each one generally. Some assumptions will be covered in greater detail in other lessons in this course.

  1. The first assumption of Vygotsky's theory is that through both informal and formal conversations and education adults convey to children the way their culture interprets and responds to the world. Specifically, as adults interact with children, they show the meanings they attach to objects, events and experiences. Returning to our example, the father is now reading to his daughter a book about transportation. The book describes the different modes of transportation we use in our society (such as cars, trucks and boats). By presenting these concepts, the book shows the little girl how our society classifies modes of transportation.
  2. The second assumption of Vygotsky's theory is that thought and language become increasingly independent in the first few years of life. We will talk specifically about language and speech development later in this lesson.
  3. The third assumption explains that complex mental processes begin as social activities. As children develop, they gradually internalize processes they use in social contexts and begin to use them independently. This internalization process allows children to transform ideas and processes to make them uniquely their own. Returning to our example, the child and father are simply reading a book, but this social activity is transforming the way the child perceives modes of transportation. She will begin to classify these items herself when she sees cars, trucks and boats in real-life settings.
  4. Vygotsky also introduced the idea that children can perform more challenging tasks when assisted by more advanced and competent individuals. Vygotsky identified two levels of development: actual development, which is the upper limit of tasks a child can perform individually, and level of potential development, which is the upper limit of tasks a child can perform with the assistance of a more competent individual. According to Vygotsky, in order to get a true assessment of a child's actual and potential development, we should assess capabilities both when the child is performing the activity alone and with a more competent individual. For example, our young child exhibited that her actual development was that she knew the blocks belonged in the holes, but she couldn't quite determine how to actually put them in. Her level of potential development was being able to put the blocks in with the help of her father, an advanced individual. We would not expect the child to then be able to sort the blocks into colors and shapes, or to do anything beyond these skills that she exhibited with the assistance of her father at this point.
  5. Our next assumption is that challenging tasks promote maximum cognitive growth. Vygotsky described this as the zone of proximal development , or commonly referred to as ZPD. ZPD is the range of tasks that a child can perform with the help and guidance of others but cannot yet perform independently. ZPD will be discussed in more detail in another lesson.
  6. The final assumption is that play allows children to stretch themselves cognitively. Play allows children to take on roles they would normally not be able to perform in real life. Let's return to our example. Our same little girl who was playing with the blocks is now five years old. She's playing house with a friend. She is the mother and her friend is the child. Through make-believe play, she is able to exhibit behaviors and be a mommy according to the rules of her society. For example, a mommy takes care of her child, prepares food, etc. That would normally be impossible for a five year old in real-life to do.

Adults provide instructional guidance to help children accomplish cognitive tasks
Parent Child Cognitive Development

Speech and Language Development

We have covered the basic assumptions of Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development, and now I want to focus, specifically, on the principles of speech and language development. According to Vygotsky, speech begins as a means of communication and socializing and later becomes a tool of thinking. His research led to the identification of four major stages of speech development.

Reading to a child can help her understand how to interpret the world within her culture
Vygotsky Assumption One

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