Sociocultural Theory Of Cognitive Development By Vygotsky And Its Implication On Education

The Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development by Vygotsky talks about the role and impact of society and culture in a child’s cognitive development. It also talks about the implications of the society the child lives in and the culture the society follows on the education of a child.

In this article:

  1. The 4 major concepts related to Socio-cultural Theory by Vygotsky
  2. The 5 key principles of Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory
  3. The 2 Educational implications of Socio-cultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky, was a soviet psychologist known for his work on psychological and cognitive development of children. He suggests that human learning is largely a social process that happens through the many interactions between an individual and the society, along with the culture of the society in which he or she lives.

The 4 Major Concepts Related to Socio-Cultural Theory

To have a fair understanding of Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Theory, it is important to first know the four major concepts related to it. They are:               

  1. Tools of Intellectual Adaptation
  2. More Knowledgeable Other (MKO)
  3. Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
  4. Levels of Learning

1. Tools of Intellectual Adaptation

Children are born with specific mental capacities and certain other biological limitations as regards their mind. According to Vygotsky, the culture to which a child belongs to provides specific ‘tools’, which he refers to as “Tools of Intellectual Adaptation”.

These tools facilitate young children to use the inherent mental capacities in such a way that is adaptive to their own culture.

The four basic mental capacities as per Vygotsky are:

  • Attention
  • Sensation
  • Perception
  • Memory

These four capacities of the child’s mind interact with the socio-cultural environment, using the tools of intellectual adaptations. As a result, the child develops a more sophisticated and effective mental process called the Higher Mental Function.

Memory, as we know, is a mental function that is determined by biological factors. However, it is culture which decides the type of strategy that a child will use to enhance memory. For instance, a literate society teaches taking notes by hand to enhance memory and recall; whereas an illiterate or semi-literate society adopts the approach of tying knots in a string or carrying pebbles to enhance memory and recall.

2. More Knowledgeable Other

For effective learning to happen, the tool of intellectual adaptation that varies from culture to culture has to reach the child through a skillful tutor. Most often, the tutor of the child is the parent or the teacher, right from an early age. They provide verbal instructions through dialogues that are cooperative and collaborative in nature.

These dialogues in turn help the child in internalizing the information received, thereby enabling them to regulate or guide the child’s performance. For example, when given a puzzle for the first time, young children will not be able to solve it on their own.

But if the mother or teacher takes time out to sit with the child, describe what the puzzle is about from the picture on the box, teach basic approaches to solve any puzzle like finding the edges first, help the child to locate a couple of pieces and put them together, the child may find it easy to take it forward from there and solve the puzzle.

To top it up, if the parent or teacher can provide encouragement and support, the child will certainly feel motivated and find it much easier to solve the puzzle. The outcome of the time spent and encouragement provided to the child is that next time the child is given a new puzzle, he/she would work more independently and solve confidently.

As per Vygotsky, the mother or teacher is the skilful tutor in the above example, who is now referred to as the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). Thus the MKOs are the people who have a relatively better understanding or are at a higher level of cognitive ability than the learner of a given task, process or concept.

It is worth mentioning that the MKO can be a parent, a teacher, an older adult, a sibling, a peer. That’s not all. A child can in fact be the MKO for an adult, as age has got nothing to do with being a MKO. It only takes one to be More Knowledgeable.

3. Zone of Proximal Development

Having established that culture intervenes and influences with the elementary mental process, and that it converts the elementary processes into higher mental functions with the support of MKOs, it now becomes important to measure it.

Meaning, it becomes important to measure the level of elementary mental process, its related level of higher mental functions for a given task, at a given point in time, exhibited by a given child.

Simply put, the tasks a child can achieve independently and the tasks a child can achieve with support and guidance have to be measured. Once measured, the difference between the two levels of achievement is called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

To understand ZPD with an example, let us consider the same situation of a child trying to solve a puzzle. To solve the puzzle, the child works as per his or her intellectual potential, makes use of the socio-cultural interactions and leverages the tools of intellectual adaptation.

Additionally, the child may also make use of the support and guidance provided by MKOs (parents, teachers or others) and/or watch videos on how to solve puzzles.

The difference between the extent to which the child can solve the puzzle on his/her own and the extent to which he/she can solve with others’ help, is called the Zone of Proximal Development.

Remember, however, that is a level beyond ZPD, which is beyond the reach of the child.

4. Levels of Learning

Any learning happens only within the limit of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development). Within this given limit, according to Vygotsky, learning happens at two levels:

i) Social Level

Social level of learning is the first level at which a child learns, based on socio-cultural interactions. The cognitive development that happens due to social level learning is called as Inter-Psychological learning.

ii) Personal Level

A child’s pattern of thinking or behavior alters as an outcome of the many interactions with the society and its related culture. The cognitive development that happens as a result of learning at the personal level is called Intra-Psychological learning. Inter-psychological learning gets reflected throughout the life of a child.

The 5 Key Principles of Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Let us now understand the key principles of the Socio-Cultural Theory.

1. Children Construct their Own Knowledge

Children construct knowledge by building on their experiences. The process and their ability to think, reflect and reason about their experiences helps them discover new connections (read ‘meanings’) and elevate them to the next level of understanding.

The process children go through to construct knowledge, acquire concepts and skills can be termed as a “Learning Cycle”. It is nothing but an ongoing cycle of awareness, exploration, acquisition and application that takes children on a journey of exploration and discovery!

2. Learning Needs Mediation

Like the famous saying which goes “Change is the only constant”, the human brain keeps changing constantly, is highly supple and very receptive. Mediated Learning is a proven system that leverages the plasticity of the brain by triggering brain activity by doing one simple thing: Asking of good questions to the child.

By asking good questions, the parent or teacher facilitates the child’s ability to problem-solve by placing herself/himself between the child and the challenge at hand. By deliberately not giving answers the child needs and only interacting with the child as a mediator, the parent or teacher helps the child, kind of navigating them to think effectively.

3. Learning Happens at Two Levels

The learning happens first with the social level and then extends to the individual level (as already discussed above). Inter-psychological learning and intra-psychological learning leads to the overall and effective cognitive development of a child.

4. Social Context is Significant

The significance of the social context in cognitive development cannot be emphasized enough. The child just being exposed to a proper, good and healthy social environment, by itself, can result in faster rate of cognitive development.

5. Learning Happens Within the Zone of Proximal Development

There are things a child can do independently and there are things a child can do only with support and guidance of others. The difference between the two is called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD, which is also discussed in detail above).

The 2 Educational Implications of Socio-Cultural Theory

The two major educational implications of the Socio-Cultural Theory by Lev Vygotsky are:

i) Scaffolding

Similar to how support is erected while constructing a building, Scaffolding is nothing but the offering of structure and support to a child in their process of learning. Just like how the scaffolds are removed once the construction is complete so that the building stands alone, the same approach is applied children’s learning process also.

Scaffolding closely relates to the concept of ZPD of Vygotsky, and it is considered to be a popular method in early childhood education.

For example, let’s say a child has difficulty in answering to the question “What is the opposite of the term ‘Down’?” Maybe the child is unable to answer on his own. That’s when the teacher can intervene and apply the concept of scaffolding by providing three to five answers for the child to choose from. This will make the child to independently go for the answer.

Let’s take another example, where the task on hand for a child is to draw a square. The parent or teacher will know by experience or by training that a child should first know to draw vertical lines, followed by horizontal lines, as only then can the child eventually draw a square.

The parent or teacher should support the child to first gain mastery over drawing vertical lines, followed by horizontal lines. Once a child exhibits these two skills, even after the support is removed, the child should be able to draw a square.

ii) Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal Teaching, a contemporary application of Vygotsky’s theories, is used to improve the ability of students to learn from text. In this method, the teacher and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills: questioning, clarifying, predicting and summarizing.

Even though the effectiveness of reciprocal teaching is scientifically proved effective among children in their seventh standard, the concept can be used among preschoolers too, though not in the sense it is formally expected to be.

Let’s take the example of children being asked to color an apple with leaves. The facilitator can first make them sit in a cluster of smaller groups and ask them to start the task. Once on, the facilitator can reach out to each of the groups and observe them interacting with the two colors of crayons that they perceive to be right one: one for coloring the Apple and the other to color the leaves.

Through observation, the facilitator would understand their basic knowledge and may continue asking them certain questions like “Why the red color is chosen?” and even pose certain questions that may seemingly confuse them but actually makes them think, like: “Why not color it with yellow?

In this example, Reciprocal Teaching happens as an outcome of the dialogues happening between the children and the parent or teacher, who facilitates in bringing out clarity in the young minds on the concept of Apple.

Disclaimer: The content in this page and across this website are for informational and educational purposes only. In case of any concerns about your child’s growth and development, please contact your professional child healthcare provider.