Applying Lev Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development in Education

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August 7, 2019
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The work of Lev Vygotsky (1934) has become the foundation of much research and theory in cognitive development over the past several decades, particularly of what has become known as Social Development Theory.

Vygotsky’s theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning.”

Contemporary with Jean Piaget (read Piaget’s theory of cognitive development), Russian psychologist Lev Vygostky distanced himself from the beliefs held by the Frenchman regarding cognitive development. 

Piaget describes development as an internal construction of the subject, born from the interactions with objects, whilst Lev Vygostky insists on the crucial role social interaction has in this developmental process.

Vygotsky Vs. Piaget

Piaget and Vygotsky were both prominent thinkers of their time, but it was only after Vygotsky’s passing that his ideas gained widespread recognition. Despite some similarities, there were notable distinctions between their respective theories.

Cognitive Development is viewed by Vygotsky (buy his books from Amazon) as a socio-construct which follows an opposite direction than the one Piaget thought of. The thesis of the psychosocial genesis of the psychic functions leads to a radical restatement of an old dispute which refers to the relationships between development and learning.

In the Piagetian view, learning capacities were dependable on the individual’s level of development – cognitive development conditions learning. Lev Vygotsky thinks differently.

  • Vygotsky did not break down development into a series of predetermined stages as Piaget did.
  • Vygotsky stressed the important role that culture plays, suggesting cultural differences can dramatically affect development. Piaget’s theory suggests that development is largely universal.
  • Piaget’s theory focuses a great deal of attention on peer interaction, while Vygotsky’s theory stresses the importance of more knowledgeable adults and peers.
  • The Russian psychologist’s theory heavily stressed language’s role in development, which Piaget largely ignored.
  • Unlike Piaget, he did not believe a child must be already “apt” in order for him to be able to learn something new.

The Theory of Social Development

A person’s cognitive development takes place through interactions with others, including children and adults engaging in mutual activities. Through this cooperative process, novice and expert individuals work together to develop the child’s knowledge and skills. The experienced person creates a supportive environment to facilitate the child’s deeper understanding.

According to Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, it occurs through a two-fold process – first external, then internal. This progression moves from a social to an individual context rather than the reverse. The child’s abilities are initially displayed within an interdependent dynamic, where the social surroundings provide guidance, creating a cooperative and supportive bond between the child and adult. As a result of internalization, the child then gains the ability to initiate and control activities independently.

During child development, each psychic function manifests itself twice. Firstly, as a collective activity facilitated by adults – known as interpsychic function. Secondly, as an individual activity, as an internal property of the child’s thinking – referred to as intrapsychic function. Language serves as a good example of this phenomenon.

Key Concepts in Vygotsky's Theory

Lev Vygostky’s (buy his books from Amazon) Theory accentuates the importance of becoming consciouss of the zone of proximal development the child currently manifests and correctly predict the outcome he is most likely to direct based on his capabilities. This plays an important role in education.

Zone of Proximal Development, part of Vygotsky's Theory of Social Development

According to Lev Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development is 

“[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.”—Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society, 1978 

Essentially, this zone is the gap between what a child knows and what he does not yet know. The process of acquiring that information requires skills that a child does not yet possess or cannot do independently, but can do with the help of a more knowledgeable other. 

Parents and teachers can foster learning by providing educational opportunities that lie within a child’s zone of proximal development. Kids can also learn a great deal from peers, so teachers can foster this process by pairing less skilled children with more knowledgeable classmates.

Vygotsky conceived the more knowledgeable other as a person who has greater knowledge and skills than the learner. In many cases, this individual is an adult such as a parent or teacher. Kids also learn a great deal from their interactions with their peers, and children often pay even greater attention to what their friends and classmates know and are doing than they do to the adults in their life.

No matter who serves as the more knowledgeable other, the key is that they provide the needed social instruction with the zone of proximal development when the learner is so sensitive to guidance. Children can observe and imitate or even receive guided instruction to acquire new knowledge and skills.

Within the zone, the structure that enabled an individual to move forward in their ability was termed scaffolding. Scaffolding is an incremental change in information support that steps the learner up to the highest level they can achieve with support. This gain in knowledge would be an example of intermental learning, whereas, when the individual undertakes the new skill on their own, they have accomplished intramental learning.

When the individual is able to transfer the newly learned skill to a different context, which may require abstract thought, the learning has become “decontextualised”. This means the individual does not have to remain in the physical situation in which they learned the skill. They are also able to imagine a scenario and use hypothetico-deductive reasoning to formulate an answer to a question which is abstract in nature.

Read about Jerome Bruner’s variant of the concept of scaffolding. 


Lev Vygotsky also suggested that human development results from a dynamic interaction between individuals and society. Through this interaction, children learn gradually and continuously from parents and teachers.

This learning, however, can vary from one culture to the next. It’s important to note that Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development emphasizes the dynamic nature of this interaction. Society doesn’t just impact people; people also affect their society.

The Russian also viewed language development as s semiotic mediator of the psychic activity. Though language, the individual is organising his or her perceptions and thinking processes.

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