Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

In early 20th century, a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky developed a theory of cognitive development in children known as Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development.

The main assertion of the Vygotsky theory is that cognitive development in early childhood is advanced through social interaction with other people, particularly those who are more skilled. In other words, un Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky proposed that social learning comes before cognitive development in children, and that children construct knowledge actively.

Vygotsky’s Concept of Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky is most recognized for his concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) pertaining to the cognitive development in children.

According to the Vygotsky theory of cognitive development, children who are in the zone of proximal development for a particular task can almost perform the task independently, but not quite there yet. With a little help from certain people, they’ll be able to perform the task successfully.

Some factors that are essential in helping a child in the zone of proximal development:

  • The presence of someone who has better skills in the task that the child is trying to learn.

    This “someone” is known as a “More Knowledgeable Other”(MKO), which we will discuss below.

  • The child can receive instructions from the MKO during the learning process.

  • The MKO can offer temporary support (scaffolding) to the child during the learning process.

For example, a five-year-old child knows how to ride a tricycle, but can’t ride a bicycle (with two wheels) unless his grandfather holds onto the back of her bike. According to Vygotsky’s theory, this child is in the zone of proximal development for riding bicycle.

With her grandfather’s help, this little girl learns to balance her bike. After some practising, she can ride the bike on her own.

Vygotsky’s concept of Zone of Proximal Development underscores Vygotsky’s conviction that social influences, particularly getting instructions from someone, are of immense importance on the cognitive development in early childhood.

According to Vygotsky’s theory, as children are given instructions or shown how to perform certain tasks, they organize the new information received in their existing mental schemas. They use this information as guides on how to perform these tasks and eventually learn to perform them independently.

Vygotsky’s Concept of More Knowledgeable Other

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory emphasizes that children learn through social interaction that include collaborative and cooperative dialogue with someone who is more skilled in tasks they’re trying to learn. Vygotsky called these people with higher skill level the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). MKO could be teachers, parents, tutors and even peers.

In our example of the five-year-old girl learning to ride a bike, her grandfather not only holds onto the back of the bike, but also verbally teaches her how to balance her bike. From the little girl’s point of view, her grandfather is what Vygotsky would call a More Knowledgeable Other.

Vygotsky’s Concept of Scaffolding

Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding is closely related to the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development. Scaffolding refers to the temporary support given to a child by a More Knowledgeable Other that enables the child to perform a task until such time that the child can perform this task independently.

According to the Vygotsky theory, scaffolding entails changing the quality and quantity of support provided to a child in the course of a teaching session. The MKO adjusts the level of guidance in order to fit the student’s current level of performance.

For novel tasks, the MKO may utilize direct instruction. As the child gains more familiarity with the task and becomes more skilled at it, the MKO may then provide less guidance.

To illustrate Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding using our example of the five-year-old learning to ride a bike:

The little girl’s grandfather (MKO) may begin by holding onto the back of her bike the whole time that she is on the bike. As the little girl gains more experience, her grandfather may release his hold intermittently.

Eventually the girl’s grandfather only grabs the bike when he needs to correct her balance.

When the girl finally masters the skill, her grandfather no longer needs to hold onto her bike anymore, and the scaffolds can be removed.

A major contribution of Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development in children is the acknowledgement of the social component in both cognitive and psychosocial development. Due to Vygotsky’s proffered ideas, research attention has been shifted from the individual onto larger interactional units such as parent and child, teacher and student, brother and sister, etc.

The Vygotsky theory also called attention to the variability of cultural realities, stating that the cognitive development of children who are in one culture or subculture, such as middle class Asian Americans, may be totally different from children who are from other cultures. Therefore, it would not be fitting to compare the developmental milestones of children from one culture to those of children from other cultures.


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