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Lev Vygotsky

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Born Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky lived from November 17 1896 to June 11, 1934.
He was a Soviet psychologist and the founder of cultural-historial psychnology. 

The work of Vygotsky was the beginning of research and theory in cognitive development. Specifically what is known as Social Development Theory. Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition. He believed that community plays a central role in the process of "making meaning."

He is commonly compared and contrasted to Jean Piaget. One of the biggest differences between the two is where Piaget believed children’s' development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, "learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function" (1978, p. 90). Which plainly means that social learning tends to come before development.  


Vygotsky's Views on Cognitive Development

1: Vygotsky placed more emphasis on the way that culture affects and shapes cognitive development

Vygotsky claimed that infants are born with the basic abilities for intellectual development, which include attention, sensation, perception, and memory. These skills are present at birth and through interaction they will grow and mature into higher mental functions. Every person has unique experiences in their own unique culture and will therefore develop differently. One child may come from a culture where they use tools, like note taking, even this will impact the way the child learns and develops. Therefore intellectual adaptation will vary from culture to culture and from human to human.

2: Vygotsky placed more emphasis on the social factors that contribute to cognitive development

Vygotsky and Piaget both believed that young children are born curious and are actively involved in exploring and learning from their environment. They take their explorations and develop new understandings of their surroundings. However, Vygotsky placed more emphasis on social contributions to the process of development. Vygotsky believed that much of a child’s learning will occur through interaction with a tutor. The tutor can include anyone from a parent or grandparent to a teacher. The child will have interaction with this skilled person and then they will internalize the information and make it their own to guide their explorations. Children learn from exploring and guidance is a great tool to help them on this path to cognitive development.

3: Vygotsky placed more emphasis on the role of language in cognitive development

According to Vygotsky language plays two critical roles in cognitive development:

1: It is the main form of communication between adults to children.

2: Language becomes a powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.

Vygotsky describes children’s early mumbling and jibbering as a secret way for children to plan activities and therefore aid their development. Language is therefore an accelerator to thinking and understanding. Vygotsky believed that language develops from social interactions.


Two ways to better understand Vygotsky’s theories on cognitive development are

More Knowledgeable Other (MKO)

The more knowledgeable other (MKO) refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner. The MKO does not necessarily need to be a parent or a teacher. The MKO just needs to have more knowledge about the subject at hand and be willing to help the student understand the material. A computer and other technological tools can also be the more knowledgeable other. The only rule is that the MKO need it to be a parent, adult, fellow student, or computer must have more knowledge about the topic that is at hand than the learner does.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

The Zone of Proximal Development is an important concept that relates the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner. The Zone of Proximal Development is a sensitive area where the most instruction needs to occur. This is an important time because it allows the child to develop skills that they will later be able to use on their own. This is also the time where cooperative learning comes into play because Vygotsky believes that working with classmates is important to the development of skills. This is a good time to pair higher performing students with lower performing students to make sure that skills are learned and enhanced.

McLeod, S.A. (2007) Simply Psychology  [On-line] UK: Available: Accessed: April 23, 2011

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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