Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development and Examples

Elizabeth Diehl, Melissa Hurst
  • Author
    Elizabeth Diehl

    Elizabeth has taught in various capacities for 5 years, at both the elementary level and with secondary students. She has a bachelors in History from UCCS and a masters in Special Education from Regis University.

  • 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.

Learn about the Vygotsky Theory of Cognitive Development, see Vygotsky’s stages of development, his language development theory, and read Vygotsky theory examples. Updated: 07/22/2021

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Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development

Lev Vygotsky was born in 1896 in what is now known as Belarus. He became a contemporary to other leaders in the field of psychology, including Piaget and Freud. Vygotsky, who was Jewish-Russian, grew up learning several languages and recognized the role language plays in culture. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1917 with a Master's degree in law, but his coursework also included classes in psychology, sociology, and philosophy. He then returned to his hometown and worked as a teacher for seven years.

In 1925, Vygotsky earned his doctoral degree in psychology at the Institute of Experimental Psychology in Moscow. He earned the title "The Mozart of psychology" because he produced and published many profound theories in a short period of time, much like Mozart was a prolific composer in a short period of time. Unfortunately, Vygotsky's life was cut short in 1934 when he died of tuberculosis. He died just prior to being able to publish his first book. Later, his friends and fellow researchers published his many notes and findings and credited him posthumously. His first book, Thinking and Speech, was first translated into English in 1962.

A key component of Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development put emphasis on the importance of social interactions as the key ingredient for how humans understand the world. At the same time, he thought that how people share information shapes their culture and shapes how they learn new things. Vygotsky's theory focuses on the relationship of the learner with their teacher, as well as the sharing of information through language.

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Stages of Development

Vygotsky's theory of child development can be imagined as a cycle. Vygotsky maintained that there are three themes that interrelate and affect each other as a person learns: Vygotsky observed that culture is essential to learning, language is essential to culture, and learners learn how to think by the influence of their community. Vygotsky recognized how languages link communities together, and that the culture of the adults in the community influences what the children learn. Culture puts pressure on how parents raise their children, which affects how children behave in certain situations. When learners go to school or in other ways engage with people in their community, they pick up on the attitudes and opinions of the people around them. The biases, attitudes, and behaviors of the culture play out in how children learn and develop.

Vygotsky placed importance on the culture framing how families interreact and teach their children.

A baby and mom exercise together

Speech and Language Development

Vygotsky researched the connection between how people learn and how they acquire language. He noticed that as a person develops, he or she uses language in different ways and that the use of speech grows from the external cues as a baby to the private, inner thoughts of an adult. As this occurs, the individual is shaped by culture. Vygotsky created three stages of speech and language development: external, egocentric, and inner speech.

  • External speech begins at birth to age 3, when babies learn through interactions from their caregivers. Babies learn how to share what they need and also learn that they can earn approval and disapproval from their caregivers. A baby might learn that saying "please" makes his parents more likely to give him what he wants.
  • Egocentric speech occurs from ages 3 to 7. It focuses on an egocentric child using the social aspect of thinking out loud to solve problems and then remember them for next time. When preschoolers all have different ideas for a game, but they work together to find something they can all play together, they are demonstrating egocentric speech.
  • Inner speech occurs when older children up to adult age can essentially have two modes for speech: an inner conversation where they talk to themselves and a verbal conversation. An adult who has the reached inner speech does not need to think out loud as they make decisions; they basically talk to themselves and process ideas before they need to speak. For example, a student might use inner speech to remind herself to study for her math test, but use verbal speech to ask the teacher to define a mathematical term.

Zone of Proximal Development

For Vygotsky, there were essentially two avenues of learning: things that a person can teach and master themselves, and things that are out of reach for the learner by themselves (and must be taught by someone else). The second avenue for learning was explained with the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The goal is that the student begins with a specific skill or task just out of reach, but with the support of a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) they will master the skill. The More Knowledgeable Other can be anyone who can lead the learner in the new skill, from a parent to an older sibling or even a neighbor. In this case, the word "proximal" refers to what is close, but just out of reach, of the learner without help. In the ZPD, the learner has the potential to master a skill or something new but needs some outside help.

Vygotsky's Theory Examples

There are many avenues to incorporate Vygotsky's theories into common practice. Here are some examples of scenarios that occur in everyday life.

Vygotsky's Theory in the Classroom

Vygotsky's theories continue to shape modern teaching practices. Scaffolding refers to how the MKO tailors their supports to meet the needs of the learner. A learner might need very little help with a new task or idea, or need more concrete guidance compared to another classmate. A concept related to scaffolding is fading, where the MKO reduces the level of support needed as the learner demonstrates they are mastering the skill.

For example, a second-grade teacher introduces butterflies (the new science unit) to the class. She asks the class to list as a group what they already know about butterflies, as well as what they might want to learn. As the class shares what they know about butterflies, the teacher writes it down on the board. The students share what they know about butterflies, including that butterflies are insects. The teacher notes that most of the class already know butterflies are considered insects but are not able to explain the characteristics of insects. The teacher makes a note to explore what are the characteristics of an insect for the next day.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main differences between Piaget and Vygotsky's theories?

The biggest differences between Piaget and Vygotsky's theories relate to differences in the importance of culture and specification of development stages. Piaget listed specific development stages that occur regardless of cultural experiences. Vygotsky described vague stages of language development that were strongly impacted by cultural experiences.

What does Vygotsky say about learning?

Vygotsky determined that there are some skills and concepts that must be directly taught to the learner. These experiences are shaped by the learner's culture and language. When there is a skill that is just outside the reach of the learner but is attainable with help, the learner is considered in the Zone of Proximal Development.

Why is Vygotsky's theory important?

Vygotsky's theory offers a contrast to other psychological ideas, such as those of Piaget. Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development focuses on how culture and language impact and shape the learner.

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