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Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed the Social Development Theory at about the same time Jean Piaget developed his Theory of Cognitive Development. Vygotsky died when he was just 37, which was at least partially responsible for his Social Development Theory not becoming as well-known as Piaget’s theory. Also, his work was written completely in Russian, needing painstaking translation so it could be presented to the majority of psychology and education professionals at the time.

By developing exposure to new psychological and educational constructs, professional psychologists and teachers slowly altered styles of both psychology and early childhood education, benefiting clients and students.

Vygotsky’s work stresses how social interaction helps children develop cognitively. It also states that the community at large has a major role in “creating meaning” for young children. He said that “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function.”

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MKO (More knowledgeable Other)

This refers to someone who has greater knowledge or a skill, which a child needs to learn. They are the more knowledgeable other.

At first, the MKO slowly does a task for the child. Soon, the MKO “talks” the child through each step of a task, such as tying their shoes:

  • Place one lace over and under the other lace and pull them tight
  • Create a loop with one lace and hold it with one hand
  • Create a second loop with the second lace, with the second hand, and hold it
  • Then, place one loop through the hole in between both laces and pull them tight

Eventually, the child does this on their own without needing to be talked through it.

ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development)

The zone of proximal development refers to the difference between what a child or new learner can already do on their own and what they can do with encouragement and guidance from someone who has more skill.

If a child wants to learn how to play checkers, someone who already knows how to play the game can guide and encourage them in learning how to move their checkers so that they defeat their opponent and win the game.

The person giving guidance should only help as much as the child needs, allowing the child to take independent steps as they learn.


Scaffolding fits in closely with the ZPD. It’s the temporary learning support that an MKO gives to the child as they learn a new activity. As the child learns more and more of the new skill, the MKO gradually and almost imperceptibly begins to withdraw instructional support until the child can complete the new skill, fully independently.

If the child is learning how to complete addition problems in math, the MKO shows the child a few problems, then allows the child to work more and more independently, until the child is doing the work completely on their own.

Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

This theory covers the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Children and adults are social creatures, so they rely on social interaction to encounter new experiences and activities, which they then learn.

Thinking of the ZPD, imagine three circles with 2 surrounding the innermost, smallest circle. The central circle is the “I can do this by myself” circle. The next circle is “I can do this with some help,” or the ZPD. The final, largest circle is the “I can’t do this, even if I get help”. Because we are social creatures, our ability to learn a new skill is greatly affected by the presence of someone who already knows the skill. Vygotsky might have simply stated, “We learn by watching.”, though, of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Social Interaction is Central to Cognitive Development

The first concept of Vygotsky’s theory is that, “Social interaction plays a central role in cognitive development.” We all look for meaning in everything around us. If you look at the wonder, excitement, and curiosity of a young child, you may think they have begun to see meaning in snow falling or the sweet face of a kitten.

However, it takes more than just noticing new things for a child to learn. Once the child sees a young kitten, they need to become involved in learning about the kitten—the soft fur, the purring sound, rough tongue, and the sharp claws. This is the “discovery” process.

This young child is beginning to discover, not only the cold snow and soft kitten, but their own interaction between themselves and society. Even more, the relationship is mutual. The child affects society, and society impacts the child.

If a child is kept from stimulating sights or experiences, their learning will be stunted. It’s when the parents (a child’s first teachers) teach him new words, steps, how to interact with others, and how to use a potty that learning takes hold and becomes real for the child.

Social Learning is Required for Development

Vygotsky believed that social interaction has a positive impact on learning. Social learning is just the first in several processes of learning.

There are two levels which are vital in learning:

  • Social or interpsychological learning: Two people interact with each other and make a connection, then reach out to others.
  • Individual or intrapsychological learning: This is within the child. After passing the social level and learning social skills, the child repeats the same functions. However, they will be more developed, expanding the child’s cognitive development.

Without the social and then the individual learning, the child will not be able to function normally and develop into their own person. Even so, children are born with elementary mental functions that develop after birth and with continued growth.

These functions are affected by external stimuli (they are involuntary, and don’t require any thought on the child’s part):

  • Sensation: heat, cold, bitter, or sweet
  • Hunger: When the child experiences hunger, they cry or become restless until they are fed
  • Memory: This is natural memory—recognizing the taste of a food or the voice of their mother

Language Supports Cognitive Development

We need language, whether we use it to hear someone’s voice, understand their visible reactions, and to express ourselves verbally or nonverbally. When a child watches and listens to a parent, they begin to learn new words. They also learn that those words have meaning.

First is social or “external” speech. This is when the child is younger than three and still unable to express their thoughts through complete sentences or messages. Because their language is so limited, they rely on gurgling, crying, laughing, or shouting. As they grow, they use simple sentences: “Make potty” or “Gimme cookie.”

There are several types of speech children use:

  • Egocentric Speech: Used to control the behavior of others. It’s also spoken as a way for a child to direct their own behavior. “Put train on the tracks.” At this age, a child may talk to themselves, giving themselves a running commentary.
  • Private Speech: This is speech that the child directs to themselves, not to other people. They use it to self-regulate and remind themselves of what they need to do
  • Inner Speech: Now, the child is closer to adulthood. This inner speech directs their thinking, then their behavior or specific actions. Inner speech is just what it sounds like, it doesn’t have to be spoken aloud. This helps children look at a problem from all angles before they come to a decision.

Self-Initiated Learning and Collaboration Supports Cognitive Development

Piaget said that learning involves a child initiating discovery and development. The child begins this process and uses a hands-on approach to learning. He says this is the best way for a child to learn.

Vygotsky mostly agreed with Piaget. Only, Vygotsky believed that the setting in which a child learns requires social interaction and communication. He thought that children need social interactions to learn. In using social interactions, children learn and develop new skills. They also become aware of the culture around them, and this shapes their learning in other ways.

Because this is the point where Vygotsky’s theory separates from Piaget’s, it’s time to learn about “collaborative dialogue,” where a child may hear and learn their first words, a nursery rhyme, a song, or the alphabet. As the child grows, they will next communicate with classmates, teachers, daycare teachers, grandparents, and tutors.

While Piaget’s theory makes sense, it also makes sense that a child needs social interactions with others for the learning to be solidified, so it can become a base for the child to learn even more advanced knowledge.

Applications in the Classroom

This theory applies to classroom learning in two important ways. First, “scaffold” learning, previously covered. Next, “apprenticeship” allows a more advanced peer-student to help structure a task so that a younger, less experienced child can begin working on the new knowledge. The teacher would help the older peer to structure the new task in a way that the younger child will be able to understand the new material.

The difficulty of the errand is vital. If the task is too easy for the younger child, they won’t feel challenged. They will become bored and lose interest. On the other hand, if the new material is too difficult or advanced for them even to attempt, they will become intimidated or frustrated, so the task must stay within the ZPD.

Teachers also use reciprocal learning, in which children learn skills from written text.

The teacher structures their lessons so their students can practice four important skills:

  • Summarizing
  • Questioning
  • Clarifying
  • Predicting

At first, the teacher will play an active role in guiding their students through this set of skills. As the students become more familiar with these skills, the teacher will gradually step back and observe their students as they work on solidifying their knowledge.

Final Thoughts

As we use social learning to teach students, we need to keep in mind that cultural differences and realities will affect how children from other cultures learn. New educators or psychologists should avoid the mistake of assuming that the developmental experiences of children from one culture can be applied as a whole to children of other cultures. This is an important point made by social development theory and one of the biggest take-aways.

Children from Asian countries use different cultural practices and stimuli than children from Middle Eastern cultures. The same applies to children from Europe and South America. Children from the same national culture who are in different social classes may also experience differences in learning. Cultural competence is a vital requirement for those who want to teach children using Vygotsky’s social development theory.

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