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Vygotsky’s Theory (VT) of Cognitive Development: Sociocultural Orientation

By: , Posted on: April 11, 2016

Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development is recognized as one of the most innovative psychological theories of the twentieth century. The theory is based on the assumption that culture plays a major role in cognitive development. Each period in child development is associated with a leading activity dominant in a given period. A considerable emphasis is placed on emergent cognitive functions conceptualized through the notion of the zone of proximal development. Instruction and learning are perceived as leading child’s cognitive development rather than following it.


Vygotsky’s theory (VT) of cognitive development: Sociocultural Orientation

International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavior Sciences

The distinctive feature of VT is its emphasis on culture as the most important factor of cognitive development. Though Vygotsky readily admitted that some basic cognitive processes can be shared by humans and higher animals, he explicitly and deliberately focused his own theory on those cognitive processes that are uniquely human. He called them ‘higher mental processes’ and associated their development with the involvement of cultural tools in the shaping of human cognition. Culture in VT is not an external envelope or ethnographically specific appearance of human behavior and thinking; culture according to VT is the force that shapes all higher mental processes, such as perception, attention, memory, and problem solving. In the absence of more appropriate terms, we still use the same verbal labels for both basic cognitive processes and culturally shaped higher mental processes though these two groups of processes are very different in their origin, development, and capacity.

Taken as a whole, the VT posed three major objectives for a study of human psychology: reconstruction of the transition from an animal to a human way of thinking and behaving; investigation of the historical change occurring in human mental functions as a result of the introduction of new cultural tools and sociocultural activities; and investigation of the developmental construction of children’s and adults’ psychological functions in a given society (Vygotsky and Luria, 1930/1993).

Regarding the first objective, Vygotsky relied mainly on the comparison of human behavior and the behavior of apes as reported by other researchers, such as Wolfgang Kohler (see Vygotsky, 1934/2012: pp. 73–85). Vygotsky suggested that nonhuman primates have both some intellectual problem-solving skills and communicative abilities, but that in the apes these two domains remain dissociated. Communicative abilities do not impact on problem solving, while problem solving does not shape interpersonal interaction. In a human child, intensive interaction between these two domains takes place during the second year of life. As a result, speech becomes intellectual, while problem solving acquires the quality of verbal intelligence. Thus, the transition from animal to human cognition was envisaged by Vygotsky as a change in the interaction between different cognitive functions. Vygotsky and his colleagues, however, had no opportunity to investigate this hypothesis in actual studies with nonhuman primates. The development of Vygotsky’s line of reasoning can, however, be identified in the work of Tomasello (1999) and his colleagues. First Tomasello (1999: p. 48) reasserts the main thesis of VT regarding the cultural origin of human higher metal processes: “Following Vygotsky and many other cultural psychologists, I contend that many of the most interesting and important human cognitive achievements, such as language and mathematics, require historical time and process for their realization – even if most cognitive scientists largely ignore these historical processes.” He then proceeds to show that in a number of cognitive tasks such as spatial memory, rotation of objects, and estimation of quantities, chimpanzees demonstrate performance comparable to and sometimes exceeding that of two-and-a-half year old children. At the same time children have an obvious advantage in the tasks related to gestural communication, observational learning, and understanding of intentions. Tomasello (1999: p. 213) concludes his analysis by stating that: “Language does not create new cognitive processes out of nothing, of course, but when children interact with other persons intersubjectively and adopt their communicative conventions, this social process creates a new form of cognitive representation – one that has no counterpart in other animal species.”

Vygotsky should also be credited with posing an intriguing question regarding possible historical changes in human cognition. Are cognitive functions of people in antiquity, Middle Ages, and the eighteenth century the same as those of people in the twenty-first century? Do the historical changes in cultural tools impact on our cognition? In the absence of a ‘time machine,’ Vygotsky and Luria decided to rely on a ‘quasihistorical’ study of cognition in a traditional society that undergoes rapid sociocultural change. Vygotsky and Luria thought that they had found such a historical ‘experiment’ in the Soviet Central Asia of the early 1930s. The unique sociocultural situation of this region in the late 1920s and early 1930s was determined by a very rapid invasion of Soviet power into an otherwise traditional and mostly nonliterate agricultural society. As a result, people belonging to the same economic and sociocultural group, often even to the same extended family, found themselves under very different sociocultural circumstances. Some of them, especially those in the remote villages, retained all aspects of a traditional nonliterate culture and way of life. Others became involved in new agricultural or industrial enterprises, exposed to the new technology and means of communication, but still without access to systematic formal education. Some of the local people, however, already attended adult literacy courses and even teachers’ colleges.

The main conclusions reached by Vygotsky and Luria on the basis of this study were that informants who retain a traditional nonliterate culture and way of life tend to solve problems by using functional reasoning reflecting their everyday life practical experience and reject the possibility of looking at classification, generalization, or drawing conclusions from another; for example, more abstractive point of view. Exposure to modern technology and involvement in jobs based on division of labor tend to increase the subjects’ readiness to solve problems both in functional and in verbal–logical ways. It was observed, however, that informants who did not experience formal education rather easily reverted to purely functional reasoning. At the same time, informants who received some form of formal education demonstrated a clear preference for the verbal-logical form of problem solving.

Though the goal of Vygotsky and Luria was to investigate the ‘historical’ change in human cognition, their Central Asia research is usually interpreted as one of the first cross-cultural studies of cognitive processes. With the wisdom of hindsight, one can distinguish a number of questions that remained unanswered in this initial research. Vygotsky and Luria seem to have grouped together different sociocultural factors such as the acquisition of literacy, formal classroom learning, exposure to modern technology, and participation in labor activities based on the formal division of labor. Each of these factors seems, however, to have a different impact on the construction of cognitive functions and should be investigated separately.

The Central Asia study later inspired the Scribner and Cole (1981) research in Western Africa that demonstrated that literacy and schooling may have a differential cognitive impact. By conducting their research in an African society where literacy in three different languages was associated with different acquisition and application contexts (school, home, and religious institution), Scribner and Cole showed that literacy does not have an overall impact on problem solving but affects specific cognitive functions corresponding to each one of the contexts. Formal education on the other hand has an impact on problem solving in the tasks that resemble those used in school. The emergence of cognitive functions was thus linked to more specific sociocultural contexts and activities. More recent studies conducted in Central American Mayan villages were able to identify the transition from subsistence and agriculture to wage economy and commerce as the main factor leading children from more concrete to more abstractive cognitive representations. At the same time, in more complex tasks that required selecting a strategy for continuation of the model pattern, schooling proved to have the strongest relationship with the choice of a more abstractive and less imitative strategy, with the involvement in the ‘new’ economy coming second.

Click here to read more about Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development and understand the five major aspects of VT together with their educational applications: the sociocultural orientation of VT, the concept of mediation, periods of child development, the relationships between language and thought, and the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD).

This excerpt was taken from the article Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development by Alex Kozulin from the Major Reference Work, International Encyclopedia of the Social and behavioral Sciences, Second Edition. The Encyclopedia is a transdisciplinary and authoratitative resource covering the broad fields of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Click here to view the subjects covered.

Read more about the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition in the below articles:

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