Friday, January 23, 2015

Lev Vygotsky – Theory on Cognitive Development in Students

The theories of how a child develops throughout their childhood and into their years before they become adults is something that has been studied by many psychologist. It is a topic that fascinates many theorist because this is when a person learns and adapts the most during these years. One such theorist is Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky who developed a theory in which is based on who children learn from their community and their culture and how these are important factors in how a child develops. The Three major parts of the theory are the Zone of Proximal Development also known as the ZPD, the More Knowledgeable Other known as MKO, and Scaffolding. Each of these three are part of the theory work together in the development of the child’s mind and can be used in a classroom setting in order to further the education of the student.

Vygotsky’s Theory
            In order to explain the other parts of the theory first it has to be known who the More Knowledgeable Other is and how their role is used in the education of the student. The MKO can be anyone that the student is exposed to, it can be a parent, a teacher, or someone who has the knowledge that the student needs. According to Saul McLeod (2007) the MKO doesn’t have to be an adult, McLeod says “Although the implication is that the MKO is a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case. Many times, a child's peers or an adult's children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience.” This explains that anyone within the child’s range can teach them something. Vygotsky’s theory is based mainly on the interactions of the student within the social spectrum of their lives. Since students interact with many different types of people then they’ll learn different things from these people, even if what they learn is from their school aged peers. In a classroom setting students who struggle with a particular topic can ask either their teacher or their fellow students for help to further their knowledge.
The second major part of the theory is the Zone of Proximal Development, the ZPD is based on the principle that a student’s knowledge is always developing. The Zone of Proximal Development is divided by two parts, first is their zone current development and secondly is their potential development which is the zone of proximal development or their potential knowledge. Liechty, Liao, and Schull (2009) three Ph.D students wrote that “A student's ZCD is derived from his or her current individual aptitude, skills, and knowledge in a particular area and represents the level of mastery that can be achieved with-out external assistance.” (p.483) after which they would need a more knowledgeable other to help them further their knowledge. This theory is demonstrated in figure 1 below,

Figure 1.0
The student will always ask how they can achieve something but many time they would need the help of someone else in order to achieve this. The potential development of the mind is something that has to be achieved with the knowledge of a teacher, such as when a child is learning to bake for the first time after seeing their parent do it over the years. They will first ask how they can bake something, at their present level of development they only know that it involves mixing ingredients but don’t know what those ingredients are. With the help of a more knowledgeable other such as a parent they will learn the steps to baking. At first they would be taught everything, the second time they want to try they would be aided by the parent without the parent helping too much. This process is called scaffolding which is the third part of the theory in which the more knowledgeable other will provide the support needed for the student but won’t help them completely. By helping the student when they only need to be helped then they will learn the process for themselves instead of relying too much on the help of others. According to Samuel James Eddy (2010) scaffolding draws parallels from real scaffolding for buildings; it is used as a support for construction of new material (the skill/information to be learnt) and then removed once the building is complete (the skill/information has been learnt).” A teacher is the support that the student needs in order to learn a new skill and will help them as they see fit but as they learn the material they will aid them less and less so that they can come up with their own conclusions and answers.

Vygotsky’s Theory in a Classroom
            When observing a teacher in a classroom they have to be able to reach not just one student but many students at a time. The teacher is the more knowledgeable other and has to help out a group of as many as 15 to 25 students at a time. The teacher has to adapt many theories to help their students and Vygotsky’s theory is one that helps students especially when they are reviewing for exams and are trying to remember a lot of information at once. During classroom observations for a Middle and High School education class I had the opportunity to see this theory work for a class of students. It was an early morning U.S. History class and the teacher was trying to keep the students engaged in the topic. The students were in an English as a Second Language class and many of the words and definitions were difficult for them to grasp. What made it even more difficult was that many of these students were more comfortable speaking Spanish than they were speaking English. The teacher had the students speak the words aloud and then had them say what they meant only helping them when they couldn’t think of the correct word in English. In another class by this teacher she was helping the students review key terms that they would need to know for the U.S. History Regents exam instead of directly helping them the teacher would say the term and then have the students say what they believed the meaning was. This was based on how well they know certain words so to help them the teacher used current events and topics to help the students come to their own answers on what the words meant.
            Since so much of Vygotsky’s theory is based on a child’s community growing up its easy to see how this works in a classroom setting. The problem is that in certain communities students aren’t exposed to the same type of development that other communities would have. Not all teachers are prepared to teach in an urban setting if they grew up and got their education in a rural community. The other part of this is that Vygotsky only studied students until just before their teenage years, yet this theory can be used during these years and even beyond because a person’s current development can always change because the ability for potential knowledge is always a possibility. Such as someone in their 40’s wants to learn how to salsa dance or a university student who happens to be in their 70’s, a person can always learn more and gain knowledge that is well beyond their reach and make it into something that they know.
Works Cited
Eddy, S. (2010, November 3). Theories of Cognitive Development: Lev Vygotsky. Retrieved January 15, 2015, from
Liechty, J. M., Liao, M., & Schull, C. P. (2009). Facilitating Dissertation Completion and Success Among Doctoral Students in Social Work. Journal Of Social Work Education, 45(3), 481-497. doi:10.5175/JSWE.2009.200800091
McLeod, S. (2007, January 1). Vygotsky | Simply Psychology. Retrieved January 23, 2015, from