Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian teacher who is considered a pioneer in learning in social contexts. As a psychologist, he was also the first to examine how our social interactions influence our cognitive growth. He was convinced that learning occurred through interactions with others in our communities: peers, adults, teachers, and other mentors. Vygotsky sought to understand how people learn in a social environment and created a unique theory on social learning. He determined that teachers have the ability to control many factors in an educational setting, including tasks, behaviors, and responses. As a result, he encouraged more interactive activities to promote cognitive growth, such as productive discussions, constructive feedback, and collaboration with others. Vygotsky also stated that culture was a primary determinant of knowledge acquisition. He argued that children learn from the beliefs and attitudes modeled by their culture.
See also: Andragogy Theory – Malcolm Knowles
Vygotsky had a groundbreaking theory that language was the basis of learning. His points included the argument that language supports other activities such as reading and writing. In addition, he claimed that logic, reasoning, and reflective thinking were all possible as a result of language. This led to the development of instructional strategies to support growth in literacy as well as a reassessment of the classroom setup. Teachers were to encourage leadership in the classroom, collaborative learning, and thoughtful discussions. With the exception of independent tasks, which were also included, the goal was to create purposeful, meaningful exchanges between students. The role of the teacher was to facilitate learning by directing the dialogue and confirming contributions in an effort to further motivate the students.
See also: Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura
The primary role of the teacher in the educational context is to act as a facilitator for learning. Guided exchanges, comprehensive discussions, and the creation of an engaging community are valuable strategies for cognitive development. Many educators have incorporated Vygotsky’s ideas of social connection and small group learning in the classroom in an effort to see more growth.
See also: Inclusive Teaching Strategies
Fundamentally, Vygotsky recognized that social settings and learning were closely entwined. Therefore one must identify and implement strategies that are effective in a social context. It is also important to note that the culture of each individual is created by their unique strengths, language, and prior experience. One of the ways that students gain knowledge is when they collaborate with their peers or mentors on activities that involve problem-solving skills and real-life tasks.
Cognitive Development and the Social World
Vygotsky maintained that the social world is not only the interactions between peers and their teacher but also consisted of outside influences within the community. Prior knowledge, such as learned behaviors at home, impact learning in the classroom environment. As such, Vygotsky outlined three main concepts related to cognitive development: (i) culture is significant in learning, (ii) language is the root of culture, and (iii) individuals learn and develop within their role in the community. Culture can be defined as the morals, values, and beliefs of its community members, which are held in place with systems and establishments. Acceptable attitudes and conduct are communicated by the use of language. Culture is shaped over time as the result of specific events, whose messages are then conveyed to its members. Vygotsky explained that culture consistently affects cognitive development by affecting human behavior. He wanted others to realize that there is a complex relationship between culture and human development. It is a cycle; at the same time that the culture is influencing an individual, that individual is in turn creating culture.
Vygotsky used the stages of childhood development to further explain the relationship between culture and learning. As a baby, you display elementary functions designed for your survival: crying, a sense of your mother’s scent, and familiar voices. These displays gradually fade out as a result of external stimuli: imitating, consequences, and conditioning by others. It is replaced with problem-solving skills such as reflection, bargaining, and reasoning. This higher-level thinking is influenced by cultural factors. The values and beliefs of a community, including models of acceptable behavior, create pressure for others to adopt the preferred attitudes and protocol of that society. Etiquette is communicated orally and by example.
Language is the basis of Vygotsky’s ideas on social interaction. The development of speech occurs in three stages: external, egocentric, and inner speech. External or social speech occurs from birth until the age of three. Babies use language to communicate their feelings, express their emotions, and share simple words. They use language to state their needs and also respond to their parent’s speech. You can begin to see the social influence on behavior as early as this stage based on the reactions to their demands. Even though babies use language to control their needs, the people around them express approval or disapproval based on their behavior. This leads to cognitive development within the individual. The next stage, egocentric speech, occurs between the ages of three and seven. As they begin to rationalize internally their actions or behavior, children begin to talk to themselves. This inner speech helps them control their reasoning and organize their thoughts. They continue to interpret meaning from the reactions of others, further integrating the cultural beliefs into their own cognitive development. Without language, Vygotsky believed that we would be limited to a more primitive function. Language is ultimately the tool by which we communicate the desired behaviors and therefore enable the development of a society and its culture.
See also: ADDIE Model: Instructional Design
Similar to inner speech is the idea of internalization. Internalization should not be confused with introjection, which involves minimal participation from the individual themselves. It is the conditioning put forth by others, for example, the consequences or reactions toward a behavior. Internalization is where the cognitive development of an individual is influenced by society as they adopt the morals and ethics of a community for themselves. They begin to view their culture’s beliefs as their own. Internalization should not be confused with socialization, where individuals develop attitudes due to a need to belong to a community and not the actual obligation to do so. In Vygotsky’s theory, internalization was important to social development. We can observe key skills develop on the social level then again within an individual as they internalize cultural influences. External influences are adopted as intrapersonal characteristics throughout the internalization process.
It is important to note that the education system influences the thoughts and belief systems of the children within. One’s teachers and peers directly affect cognitive development by the language they use and the interpretations they offer of cultural events. While Piaget believed that a child builds a unique view of the world, Vygotsky suggested that others within a child’s social circle influence their perspectives, values, and attitudes. Individuals are actively engaging within their learning environments, continuously analyzing the reactions of others and modifying their responses as they adopt or reject accepted standards as their own. Both learning and culture are depended on the other: individuals are constantly determining what is acceptable in society, and the environment is continuously confirming what would be considered appropriate behavior. Vygotsky states that it is the combination of cultural influences and genetics that create one’s personality.
Secondly, Vygotsky specified that the conclusions should be made based on the behavior of a student in a social setting. He did not place emphasis on intelligence itself. Instead, Vygotsky proposed the idea of the zone of proximal development, which distinguishes between what a child is able to accomplish independently and what they achieve under close guidance from a teacher. He maintained that learning occurred in the presence of tasks specific to the child’s current ability under the supervision of a more competent person. In order to capitalize on this growth, Vygotsky encouraged testing based on the social context. He disagreed with the notion of independent intelligence assessments, preferring to focus on the potential of each student within the learning environment. The zone of proximal development is affected by the unique attributes of each individual, including personality, self-regulation, and previous knowledge. As the zone of proximal development cannot be clearly defined, it is challenging to explain the link between social interaction and learning. It does, however, support the argument for a more student-centered education system as well as the many factors that can influence potential outcomes.
Criticisms of Vygotsky
1. Observation and testing
Vygotsky’s theories have been heavily criticized for his lack of experimental tests. He relied widely on observation of his subjects to prove his findings as he believed that social interaction was a key factor to learning. His vague definition of social interaction, in which failed to state the best methods to engage with others, allowed the criticisms to continue even after his death.
2. Active participation in the acquisition of knowledge
While some philosophers assume that learning occurs naturally and fluidly, Vygotsky believed that leaners actively engage in the acquisition of knowledge. The criticism of Vygotsky’s theory is that it does not account for the slower rate of cognitive growth in some children. Both genetics and passive experience are thought to play some role as well.
3. Societal Influences
Criticisms about the vagueness of his theories are not limited to just the acquisition of knowledge. Others were also critical about Vygotsky’s theory of language, which stated that learning comes from cultural influences. Vygotsky minimized the role of genetics and instead highlighted socialization as key to language learning. Although it is possible that Vygotsky just never elaborated on his theory in his lifetime, some observations are detrimental to his work. Even with consistent social support, some children are never able to develop cognitively until a certain age. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, conducted a systemic study of cognitive development that offers some answers where Vygotsky could not. Piaget observed that children’s learning occurred in stages, and they needed to reach the next stage, or milestone before they could understand some concepts.
4. Lack of Cultural Relevance
Even assessing Vygotsky’s theory as a whole proved to be problematic. Vygotsky’s theory revolves around the idea that social interaction is central to learning. This means the assumption must be made that all societies are the same, which is incorrect. Vygotsky emphasized the concept of instructional scaffolding, which allows the learned to build connections based on social interactions. In reality, only some learning activities place an emphasis on language, while other skills are acquired instead with hands-on practice and observation.
5. Guided Learning: Zone of Proximal Development
One of the most important aspects of Vygotsky’s theory is also criticized: the Zone of Proximal Development. It is viewed as an attempt to make Piaget’s theories trendy by rewording his ideas and presenting them in an alternate way. The concept of the zone of proximal development is not well understood and is criticized as an “umbrella term” under which many models of cognitive development could fall.
Overall, Piaget’s work has been more heavily scrutinized than Vygotsky’s. This is due to the ambiguous nature of Vygotsky’s theories, which make them difficult to test and measure. In addition to these challenges, Vygotsky’s work needs to be translated from Russian, which is time-consuming in itself.