Lev Vygotsky's Social Development
Lev Vygotsky, born in the U.S.S.R. in 1896, is responsible for the social
development theory of learning. He proposed that social interaction profoundly
influences cognitive development. Central to Vygotsky's theory is his belief
that biological and cultural development do not occur in isolation (Driscoll,
Vygotsky approached development differently from Piaget. Piaget believed
that cognitive development consists of four main periods of cognitive growth:
sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations
(Saettler, 331). Piaget's theory suggests that development has an endpoint
in goal. Vygotsky, in contrast, believed that development is a process that
should be analyzed, instead of a product to be obtained. According to Vygotsky,
the development process that begins at birth and continues until death is
too complex to to be defined by stages (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather,1996).
Vygotsky believed that this life long process of development was dependent
on social interaction and that social learning actually leads to cognitive
development. This phenomena is called the Zone of Proximal Development .
Vygotsky describes it as "the distance between the actual development 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" (Vygotsky, 1978). In other words, a student can
perform a task under adult guidance or with peer collaboration that could
not be achieved alone. The Zone of Proximal Development bridges that gap
between what is known and what can be known. Vygotsky claimed that learning
occurred in this zone.
Therefore, Vygotsky focused on the connections between people and the cultural
context in which they act and interact in shared experiences (Crawford, 1996).
According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from a culture, such
as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments. Initially children
develop these tools to serve solely as social functions, ways to communicate
needs. Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher
thinking skills. When Piaget observed young children participating in egocentric
speech in their preoperational stage, he believed it was a phase that disappeared
once the child reached the stage of concrete operations. In contrast, Vygotsky
viewed this egocentric speech as a transition from social speech to internalized
thoughts (Driscoll, 1994). Thus, Vygotsky believed that thought and language
could not exist without each other.
Application of the Social Development Theory to Instructional Design
Traditionally, schools have not promoted environments in which the students
play an active role in their own education as well as their peers'. Vygotsky's
theory, however, requires the teacher and students to play untraditional
roles as they collaborate with each other. Instead of a teacher dictating
her meaning to students for future recitation, a teacher should collaborate
with her students in order to create meaning in ways that students can make
their own (Hausfather, 1996). Learning becomes a reciprocal experience for
the students and teacher.
The physical classroom, based on Vygotsky's theory, would provide clustered
desks or tables and work space for peer instruction, collaboration, and small
group instruction. Like the environment, the instructional design of material
to be learned would be structured to promote and encourage student interaction
and collaboration. Thus the classroom becomes a community of learning.
Because Vygotsky asserts that cognitive change occurs within the zone of
proximal development, instruction would be designed to reach a developmental
level that is just above the student's current developmental level. Vygotsky
proclaims, "learning which is oriented toward developmental levels that have
already been reached is ineffective from the view point of the child's overall
development. It does not aim for a new stage of the developmental process
but rather lags behind this process" (Vygotsky, 1978).
Appropriation is necessary for cognitive development within the zone
of proximal development. Individuals participating in peer collaboration
or guided teacher instruction must share the same focus in order to access
the zone of proximal development. "Joint attention and shared problem solving
is needed to create a process of cognitive, social, and emotional interchange"
(Hausfather,1996). Furthermore, it is essential that the partners be on different
developmental levels and the higher level partner be aware of the lower's
level. If this does not occur, or if one partner dominates, the interaction
is less successful (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather, 1996).
Instructional Strategies and Their Implementation in Instruction
Scaffolding and reciprocal teaching are effective strategies to access the
zone of proximal development. Scaffolding requires the teacher to provide
students the opportunity to extend their current skills and knowledge. The
teacher must engage students' interest, simplify tasks so they are manageable,
and motivate students to pursue the instructional goal. In addition, the
teacher must look for discrepancies between students' efforts and the solution,
control for frustration and risk, and model an idealized version of the act
Reciprocal teaching allows for the creation of a dialogue between students
and teachers. This two way communication becomes an instructional strategy
by encouraging students to go beyond answering questions and engage in the
discourse (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather, 1996). A study conducted by Brown
and Palincsar (1989), demonstrated the Vygotskian approach with reciprocal
teaching methods in their successful program to teach reading strategies.
The teacher and students alternated turns leading small group discussions
on a reading. After modeling four reading strategies, students began to assume
the teaching role. Results of this study showed significant gains over other
instructional strategies (Driscoll, 1994; Hausfather,1996). Cognitively Guided
Instruction is another strategy to implement Vygotsky's theory. This strategy
involves the teacher and students exploring math problems and then sharing
their different problem solving strategies in an open dialogue (Hausfather,1996).
The Effectiveness of the Social Development Theory in Achieving Its Goals
Vygotsky's social development theory challenges traditional teaching methods.
Historically, schools have been organized around recitation teaching. The
teacher disseminates knowledge to be memorized by the students, who in turn
recite the information back to the teacher (Hausfather,1996). However, the
studies described above offer empirical evidence that learning based on the
social development theory facilitates cognitive development over other instructional
The structure of our schools do not reflect the rapid changes our society
is experiencing. The introduction and integration of computer technology
in society has tremendously increased the opportunities for social interaction.
Therefore, the social context for learning is transforming as well. Whereas
collaboration and peer instruction was once only possible in shared physical
space, learning relationships can now be formed from distances through cyberspace.
Computer technology is a cultural tool that students can use to mediate and
internalize their learning. Recent research suggests changing the learning
contexts with technology is a powerful learning activity (Crawford, 1996).
If schools continue to resist structural change, students will be ill prepared
for the world they will live.
Lev Vygotsky lived during the Russian Revolution, a time of great change
in his culture. If Vygotsky’s assertion that biological and cognitive developmental
do not occur in isolation, then his environment of change greatly influenced
his own cognitive processes. Presently our society is also going through
a culture of change due to the infusion of computer technology. Perhaps this
lends some insight to why Vygotsky's theory of social development is receiving
increasing attention, seventy years after it's conception.
Driscoll, Marcy P. (1994). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. Needham,
Ma: Allyn & Bacon.
Crawford, Kathryn. (1996) Vygotskian approaches to human development
in the information era. Educational Studies in Mathematics. (31) 43-62.
Hausfather, Samuel J., (1996) Vygotsky and Schooling: Creating a Social
Contest for learning. Action in Teacher Education. (18) 1-10.
Saettler, P. (1990). The Evolution of American Educational Technology.
Egnlewood, Co: Libraries Unlimited.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher
mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wertsch, James V. Sohmer, Richard. (1995). Vygotsky on learning and
development. Human Development. (38 ) 332-37.
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Last Updated 4-13-05