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Vygotsky's Theory of Psychological Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3360 words Published: 8th Aug 2018

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Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was born in Russia in 1896, the same year with Piaget. He attended Moscow University and graduated with a degree of law in 1917 just before the start of Russian Revolution (Driscoll, 2005). After a while the Russian revolution where the Marxism replaced, Vygotsky worked in psychology. The new philosophy of the Marxist stressed socialism and collectivism in society. So his views represented Marxist ideas of social change to language and development. Vygotsky also studied various subjects in school such as philosophy, psychology, literature and art. He worked as a teacher at a teacher training institution where he founded a psychology laboratory. His main entry into psychology started with the second Psychoneurological congress in 1924. Vygotsky presented a paper and criticized Pavlov’s reflexology theory. After his brilliant presentation performance, Konstantin Kornilov who is the director of Psychological Institute of Moscow University invited Vygotsky for a position in university (Gredler, 2005). His dissertation, in 1925,”The Psychology of Art”, was accepted for the Ph.D. degree. Vygotsky completed manuscripts, articles, and books and edited a journal until his death in 1934 because of tuberculosis. His major writings are about the role of cultural signs and symbols in the development of attention, abstraction, language, memory and reasoning ( Gredler, 2005). Most of his writings were published after his death. His concepts of cultural historical development of cognitive development remained incomplete at his death. After his death some basic concepts fixed with his studies were added his theory.

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Basic Principles of Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

To understand Vygotsky’s theory, to look at political environment of his time may be helpful. In 1917, after the Russian revolution, Marxism penetrated all society and emphasized socialism. Sharing between people and co-operating was supported, and the success of any individual was thought as the success of the culture. Marxism also took place on history, believing that every culture could be understood only by examination of the ideas and events that had formed it (Vasta,R., Haith, M.M., Miller,S.A., 1995, as cited in Riddle, 1999).

Vygotsky also influenced Marxist theory of social change to language and development (Schunk, 2008). His theory covered these elements in terms of human being development that has been called as a sociocultural approach. According to Vygotsky, the one’s development is a result of his own culture and development refers mental development including thought, language and reasoning process. These mental functions were believed to develop through social interactions with people and so represented the shared knowledge of the culture.

Vygotksy’s theory is also a form of dialectical constructivist theory that emphasizes the social environment as a facilitator of development and learning. His sociocultural theory emphasizes interaction between people and their environment. For him, the processes of the human cognitive development are the part of the process of historical development (Schunk, 2008). Briefly, Vygotsky’s theory is based on the idea that learning begins with social interaction and then knowledge is constructed individually.

Vygotsky’s theory has three basic assumptions. These assumptions are i) nature of human intelligence, ii) biological and sociohistorical lines of psychological development and iii) nature of psychological processes (Driscoll, 2005; Gredler, 2005). Vygotsky thought about the differences between animal and human behavior in terms of psychological development and thought that the behavior of modern cultured adult is the result of two different process of mental development. Firstly, in the human beings, biological factors dominate the early months of life and physical growth is responsible for perception and simple memory, and involuntary attention. The emergence of these mental functions is referred to as primitive development. And sociocultural development is responsible for development of complex mental functions (Gredler, 2005).

Secondly, Vygotsky also believed that human mental abilities develop through interaction with the world. Vygotsky investigated how these social interactions turns in to psychological principles In order to explain this phenomenon Vygotsky mention about the terms “signalization” and “signification”. According to Vygotsky’s perspective, a child does not touch a hot stove after putting his hand and feeling pain is an example of signalization (Gredler, 2005). Also, signification process that is a process of assigning meaning to an active stimulus differ human behavior from other animals. These processes are transforming from primitive humans to humans who use signs symbols to change own mental functions. So, Vygotsky believed that psychological development includes the transformation of primitive mental functions to higher mental forms (Gredler, 2005).

Vygotsky stated that “development does not proceed toward socialization; it is the conversion of social relations into mental functions” (as cited in Driscoll, 2005). The social environment influences cognition through its tools such as cultural objects, language and social institutions (Schunk, 2005). According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from the surrounding culture such as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments. So, culture gives opportunities the children with the meanings to, what to think and how to think. Initially children develop these tools to make sense of their worlds as social functions, ways to communicate needs. The tools, cultural signs and symbols, can be technological or psychological. Cognitive change results from; using these tools in social interactions and internalizing and mentally transforming these interactions (Schunk, 2005).

Vygotsky also gave importance the emergence of speech in terms of distinguishing humans from other animals. In Vygotksy’s view, language was the most important psychological tool that influences children’s cognitive development. By acquiring knowledge a child is supported the means to think in new ways and obtains a new cognitive tool for making sense of the world. For Vygotsky, the analysis of thinking and speech was a major task for psychology, and the central problem was “the relationship of thought to word” (Gredler, 2005). He identified three different stages in children’s use of language. At first, language is primarily used for communication. It refers social speech. For Vygotsky, speech begins to develop independent of thought. And then, thinking becomes verbal and children begin to use egocentric or private speech to guide their own thinking. Both Piaget and Vygotsky observed that as in problem solving situations pre-school children talking to themselves. While Piaget referred the self directed behavior as egocentric speech, Vygotsky labeled to it as a private speech. He claimed that private speech originated in the children’s interaction with other people and with these interactions; they start to use their parent’s instructional comments to regulate their own behavior. Private speech such as talking aloud or whispering while performing a task refers speech for oneself. Researches indicated that children tend to increase the amount of self-talk when facing more challenging tasks (Gredler, 2005). Children start using private speech to organize (plan, direct, or evaluate) their behaviors. The use of private speech peaks during preschool years and then decreases. For Vygotsky, this decrease with private speech turns first into inner speech and then into verbal thinking. At last stage of language development, egocentric speech becomes inner speech and children start to use inner speech to guide their thinking and actions. The inner speech is speech for oneself, not for communication without words (Gredler, 2005).

This transition of speech – from social to self-directed to internalized – reflects the Vygotsky´s concept of development as a process of internalization. With the internalization of private speech intellectual development that is the path of all higher mental functions occurs. It was described by Vygotsky in his “law of the development of higher mental functions.” He stated law of the development of higher mental functions:

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological).” (Vygotsky, 1978; as cited in Gredler, 2005).

Acording to Vygotsky’s view, development of complex mental functions involves two processes; mastering of the external means of cultural development and thinking (language, counting, writing) and learning to use symbols to master and regulate one’s own behavior. Briefly, every higher mental function was external or social before it became an internal mental function.

And also Karpov and Haywood stated that;

All higher mental processes are mediated by such psychological tools as language, signs and symbols. Adults teach these tools to children in the course of their joint activity. After children internalize these tools they function as mediators of the children’s more advanced psychological processes (Karpov & Haywood, 1989, as cited in Schunk, 2008).

Mediation is the key mechanism in learning and development from Vygotsky’s perspective. When mediation becomes increasingly internal and symbolic higher mental functions are created. Vygotsky stated that mediation referred that interposing tools between people and their environment, to modify it and obtain benefits (Schunk, 2005). And also mediators such as tools and language help to people to accommodate to their environment.

From Vygotsky’s point of view, higher mental functions include categorical perception, logical memory, abstract thought and voluntary attention (as cited in Gredler, 1992). These are the products of the sociohistorical development. Vygotsky distinguished the higher mental functions from the primitive mental functions. Primitive mental functions are biological in nature and higher mental functions are the part of the social and cultural heritage of child move from social plane to psychological plane, from interpersonal to intrapersonal, from socially regulated to self regulated, from assisted performance to unassisted performance and from social control to self control (Gredler, 2005).

Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a key concept for Vygotsky’s theory. ZPD defined from Vygotsky as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”( Schunk, 2008; Driscoll, 2005). Briefly ZPD refers the gap between what children can do individually and what they can do with assistance from more knowledgeable person. Also Bruner (1984) stated that ZPD reflects activity in which those who have more knowledgeable or are more skilled share that knowledge or skill to accomplish a task with who know less. Vygotsky claimed that learning occurs in this zone (Riddle, 1999).

In ZPD teachers and students work together on a task. With the help of more knowledgeable partner the child can complete a task when he cannot do unassisted. Working in ZPD requires a good deal of guided participation. Learners bring their own understanding to social interaction environment and construct meaning by integrating those understanding with their experiences in the context (Schunk, 2000).

Level of performance’s development shows a change from self regulation to social regulation. Gradually require to the assistance decreases and capacity for self regulation increases. The progress in ZDP is gradual from assisted performance to unassisted and self regulated performance (Moll, 1990).

The process in the ZDP described as a stage model which includes four stages which focuses on the relationship between social control and self control.

In stage 1 learner has very limited capacity to complete task and parent, teacher or more capable peers offer directions and modeling. Learner response is acquiescent and imitative. Learner gradually understands how related the parts of an activity to one another. Understanding develops with conversation (Moll, 1990).

In stage 2, there is a change of mental activity from intermental to intramental. Learners start to handle task without assistance. However, performance is not fully developed. In stage 2, self directed speech reflects development of profound significance. Key mechanism of self directed speech is self regulation (Moll, 1990)

In stage 3, assistance does not require and assistance is no longer need. Performance is already developed. Task have been internalized and automatized. Vygotsky described this stage as fruits of development (Moll, 1990).

And finally in stage 4, it can be thought that learning is lifelong. However, although a concept can be accomplished by an adult, another concept cannot be accomplished (Moll, 1990).

For Vygotsky, teacher direct students while scaffolding process in ZPD and try to provide assistance about how the learner can achieve his goal even without the assistance. A Vygotskian teacher’s aim is creating self-regulated learners. In Vygotsky’s theory, role of teachers is to provide the guidance required for learners to bridge the distance between their current skill level and a wanted skill level.

Educational Applications

There are many educational applications of Vygotsky’s theory. Instructional scaffolding, reciprocal teaching, peer collaboration and apprenticeship are some of these applications (Schunk, 2008).

Instructional Scaffolding

Although scaffolding is not a Vygotskian term, in order to it fit nicely in the ZPD, it added by Wood, Bruner and Ross in the theory (Schunk, 2008). Instructional scaffolding is also the process of controlling task elements that are beyond learners’ capabilities (Schunk, 2008). It is the condition of sufficient support to promote learning. Supports can include some resources, a compelling task, templates and guides and guidance on the development of cognitive and social skills. In scaffolding process, the instructor becomes a supportive tool for the student in the zone of proximal development. The characteristics of an ideal teacher are those of a scaffold: “provide support, function as a tool, extend the range of the learner, permit attainment of task otherwise possible, use selectively only as needed” (Schunk, 2008; Driscoll, 2005). In short, instructor creates a ZPD and provides the scaffolding for students to be successful (Moll, 2001 as cited Schunk, 2008). Moreover, for scaffolding process prior knowledge have an important role for Vygotskain teacher. Because, teacher need to give less assistance if there is more prior knowledgeable person.

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Reciprocal teaching

Reciprocal teaching is an instructional activity that takes place in the form of a dialogue between teachers and students regarding segments of text. Teacher and students take turns assuming the role of teacher in leading this dialogue (Schunk, 2008). The purpose of reciprocal teaching is to facilitate a group effort between teacher and students in the task of bringing meaning to the text. The dialogue is structured by the use of summarizing, question generating, clarifying and predicting (Driscoll, 2005; Schunk, 2008).

Peer collaboration

Peer collaboration is the notion of collective activity. When peers come together to accomplish a task cooperatively, this social interaction can lead learning. If each student has assigned the responsibility, researches showed that cooperative work is most effective (Schunk, 2008).


Apprenticeship is another application of Vygotsky’s theory. The purpose of cognitive apprenticeship is to help learners to learn the cognitive processes that experts use to overcome complex tasks through guided experience. While operating in ZPD novices and experts works closely in joint work related activities. For instance, student teachers work with cooperating teachers in schools. It is an example of apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is also a form of dialectical constructivism that depends on social interaction (Schunk, 2008).

Critics about the Theory

Vygotksky seems social interaction as only way of learning. According to Vygotsky all learning is a social process begins as social activities by interacting with other people and people internalize these processes and can use them independently. But researcher states that as it is known that cultures are critical and needed to be thought while explaining learning it is not only constrained social environment (Schunk, 2008). And it is showed that children learn certain concepts which do not depend on social environment (Geary, as cited in Schunk, 2008). However I agree with Vygotsky in terms of explaning learning from social context to individual context. In my opinion, Vygotsky’s theory is based on the idea that learning begins with social interaction with other people or environment and then knowledge is constructed individually.

Implications of Vygotsky’s theory are considered by researchers as not clear (Wertsch, as cited in Driscoll, 2005). It is thought that there is no answer to the questions how it is explained the differences between the ZDP of children who have similar history and how it is account for the changing relation between subject and child development. I think the effect of the culture and social environment on learning is important. The culture and social environment affect how children can learn. And also we construct meanings and common shared knowledge of a culture. So we affect and are affected from our culture and history. And our leanings can come from this social environment. But it has still not clear enough to understand learning with only sociocultural theory, and how the teaching should be.


Although new learning approaches appeared in education, since the earlier in the 20th century Vygotks’s sociocultural theory has lost influence on learning. Because Vygotksy’s theory contributed to development of constructivism with Piaget, Dewey, and Glaserfield’s theories. Many teachers are still using application of Vygotsky’s theory such as group works, class discussion or guided discovery consciously or unconsciously. And as Vygotksy claimed children begin to learn in social environment in classrooms with social activities by interacting with other people such as peers or teachers and they internalize these processes and can use them independently. Even though researches showed that children learn certain concepts which do not depend on social environment, the sociocultural approach certainly could not explain all human learning alone. It can explain learning particularly in terms of a social environment. Therefore it is termed as dialectical constructivist theory.

To sum up, although there are some criticisms to Vygotksy’s sociocultural theory, it is clear that the study of human development has benefited from this theory from twentieth century to nowadays. It is clear that although Vygotksy’s theory remained in complete because of his early death, researchers could not ignore his theory’s importance for learning and they developed his theory as we know today.


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