Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, stresses the social context of cognitive development. During early childhood, rapid expansion of language broadens preschoolers’ participation in social dialogues with more knowledgeable individuals. Who then, encourage them to master culturally important tasks.

Soon children start to communicate with themselves in much the same way they converse with others. This greatly enhances their thinking and ability to control their own behavior.


To Russian developmentalist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, a full understanding of development was impossible without taking into account the culture in which people develop. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory emphasizes how cognitive development proceeds as a result of social interactions between members of a culture (Vygotsky, 1926/1997, 1979; Edwards, 2005; Göncü & Gauvain, 2012). 

Unlike Piaget’s notion that children development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, “learning is a necessary & universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function.”

In other words, social learning tends to precede (i.e. come before) development. Individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes

Vygotsky believed that people & settings influence the child, who in turn influences the people and settings. This pattern continues in an endless loop, with children being both recipients of socialization influences and sources of influence.

For example, a child raised with his or her extended family nearby will grow up with a different sense of family life than a child whose relatives live a considerable distance away. Those relatives, too, are affected by that situation and that child, depending on how close and frequent their contact is with the child.

sociocultural theory emphasizes that development is a reciprocal transaction between the people in a child’s environment & the child.

Vygotsky’s View of Cognitive Development: Taking Culture into Account.

Vygotsky viewed cognitive development as a result of social interactions in which children learn through guided participation, working with mentors to solve problems. Instead of concentrating on individual performance, as Piaget and many alternative approaches do, Vygotsky’s increasingly influential view focuses on the social aspects of development and learning.

Vygotsky saw children as apprentices, learning cognitive strategies and other skills from adult and peer mentors who not only present new ways of doing things but also provide assistance, instruction, and motivation. Consequently, he focused on the child’s social and cultural world as the source of cognitive development.

According to Vygotsky, children gradually grow intellectually and begin to function on their own because of the assistance that adult and peer partners provide (Vygotsky, 1926/1997; Tudge & Scrimsher, 2003).

In Vygotsky’s view, then, children’s cognitive development is dependent on interaction with others. Vygotsky argued that it is only through partnership with other people—peers, parents, teachers, and other adults—that children can fully develop their knowledge, thinking processes, beliefs, and values (Fernyhough, 1997; Edwards, 2004).

Vygotsky gave two foundations of development –

  1. Zone of Proximal Development
  2. Scaffolding  

1. Zone of Proximal Development:

The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to the second important principle of Vygotsky’s work.

It relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.

Vygotsky sees the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given – allowing the child to develop skills they will then use on their own – developing higher mental functions.

Vygotsky also views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies.

He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.

2. Scaffolding

Scaffolding is the support for learning and problem solving that encourages independence and growth (Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005; Blewitt et al., 2009).

the scaffolding that more competent people provide to facilitate the completion of identified tasks is removed once children are able to solve a problem on their own (Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2008; Eitel et al., 2013; Leonard & Higson, 2014)

Private speech.

Watch preschoolers as they play and explore the environment. You will see that they frequently talk out loud to themselves. Piaget (1923/1926) called these utterances egocentric speech, reflecting his belief that young children have difficulty taking the perspectives of others. Their talk, he said, is often “talk for self ” in which they express thoughts in whatever form they happen to occur. Regardless of whether a listener can understand.

Vygotsky (1934/1987) disagreed with Piaget’s conclusions. He maintained that language helps children think about their mental activities and behavior and select courses of action. Thereby, serving as the foundation for all higher cognitive processes, including controlled attention, deliberate memorization and recall, categorization, planning, problem solving, and self reflection. In Vygotsky’s view, children speak to themselves for self-guidance. As they get older and find tasks easier, their self-directed speech is internalized as silent, inner speech. That is the internal verbal dialogues we carry on while thinking and acting in everyday situations.

Vygotsky’s theory suggests, children’s self-directed speech is now called private speech instead of egocentric speech. With age, as Vygotsky predicted, private speech goes underground, changing into whispers and silent lip movements. Furthermore, children who freely use private speech during a challenging activity are more attentive and involved. Also show better task performance

Related: Language Development.

Social Origins of Early Childhood Cognition

Vygotsky believed that children’s learning takes place within the zone of proximal development i. e. a range of tasks too difficult for the child to do alone but possible with the help of others. Scaffolding —adjusting the support offered during a teaching session to fit the child’s current level of performance.

When the child has little notion of how to proceed, the adult uses direct instruction, breaking the task into manageable units, suggesting strategies, and offering rationales for using them. As the
child’s competence increases, effective scaffolders gradually and sensitively withdraw support, turning over responsibility to the child. Then children take the language of these dialogues, make it part of their private speech. Also, they use this speech to organize their independent efforts.

Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education.

Both Piagetian and Vygotskian classrooms emphasize active participation and acceptance of individual differences. But a Vygotskian classroom goes beyond independent discovery to promote assisted discovery. Teachers guide children’s learning, tailoring their interventions to each child’s zone of proximal development. Assisted discovery is aided by peer collaboration, as children of varying abilities work in groups, teaching and helping one another.

As children create imaginary situations, they learn to follow internal ideas and social rules rather  than impulses. For example, a child pretending to go to sleep follows the rules of bedtime behavior. A child imagining himself as a father and a doll as a child conforms to the rules of parental behavior (Meyers & Berk, 2014).

According to Vygotsky, make-believe play is a unique, broadly influential zone of proximal development in which children try out a wide variety of challenging activities and acquire many new competencies.

Evaluation of Vygotsky’s theory.

In granting social experience a fundamental role in cognitive development, Vygotsky’s theory underscores the power of teaching. Moreover, it helps us understand the wide cultural variation in children’s cognitive skills.

To account for children’s diverse ways of learning through involvement with others, Barbara Rogoff (2003) suggests the term guided participation, a broader concept than scaffolding. It refers to shared endeavors between more expert and less expert participants, without specifying the precise features of communication. Consequently, it allows for variations across situations and cultures.

Finally, Vygotsky’s theory says little about how basic motor, perceptual, attention, memory, and problem-solving skills contribute to socially transmitted higher cognitive processes. For example, his theory does not address how these elementary capacities spark changes in children’s social experiences, from which more advanced cognition springs (Daniels, 2011; Miller, 2009).

Assessing Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory.

Sociocultural theory has become increasingly influential. The reason is the growing acknowledgment of the central importance of cultural factors in development. Children do not develop in a cultural vacuum. Instead, their attention is directed by society to certain areas. As a consequence, they develop particular kinds of skills that are an outcome of their cultural environment.

As today’s society becomes increasingly multicultural—sociocultural theory is helping us to understand the rich and varied influences that shape development (Koshmanova, 2007; Rogan, 2007; Frie, 2014).


  1. Robert. S. Feldman. (2017). Development Across the Lifespan. (8th ed.). Pearson Education.
  2. Laura. E. Berk. (2018). Development Through the Lifespan (7th ed.). Pearson Education.

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