Working during the early years after the Communist revolution in Russia, Lev Vygotsky contributed significantly to theories of cognitive development. His social development theory focuses on social interaction in the development of thought processes. The tenets of his ideas center on cultural transmission of knowledge, social interaction and language development. Vygotsky's ideas about the cultural transmission of knowledge and cognitive development laid part of the foundation of the constructivist theory of education -- the idea that students should collaborate with each other to create meaning and learning, while the teacher serves as a guide.
Watching and Internalizing
The first stage of a child’s learning, according to Vygotsky, is to watch and imitate how someone else accomplishes a task. While the child might not have the ability to physically complete the activity alone, she can internalize what she sees. Vygotsky refers to this someone else whom she is watching as the "more knowledgeable other.” This person better understands or has a more developed skill than the observing child in a particular area. This person can be a peer, an adult or even a computer. The interaction between the more knowledgeable other and the child paves the way for the child to learn something new. The more knowledgeable other provides a physical model of certain behaviors or verbal directions as to how to accomplish a task. When the observing child internalizes this information, she later uses it to guide her own behavior.
Vygotsky goes on to explain that when a child takes the information internalized from observing the more knowledgeable other and actually applies it to a task, it's possible that the child can do some things without assistance; however, he might still need the assistance of a more knowledgeable other to complete the task. Using the information he obtains through observations, modeling and instructions, he is able to move toward independence in accomplishing a task completely alone.
Finally, a child is able to start and finish a task without any intervention from anyone. This is the last stage of learning, according to Vygotsky. The zone or time between when a child needs some help or guidance to accomplish a task and when he can solve a problem or complete a task on his own is called the zone of proximal development, or ZPD; this is the learning period. When the child is in the ZPD, parents and teachers should focus their instruction to challenge the child at the appropriate level so he learns more.
Children Create Knowledge
Culture plays a significant role in determining what and how a child learns. A child begins life utterly helpless; even the cortex of the brain does not yet function sufficiently to perceive objects or people, or even distinguish the child's own body from its background. According to Vygotsky, interaction with society shapes the elementary mental functions of attention, sensation, perception and memory. These functions then develop into the ability to think and process in more sophisticated ways. Vygotsky refers to these as "higher mental functions," which he explains develop differently in each society. For example, one culture might use writing to help its members remember things, and another culture might focus on oral repetition of long lists. Children are constantly pushing their stages of development to learn more as they become capable. They look to those around them to provide the information they need to break through to the next developmental stages. According to Vygotsky, kids do not just copy what they are taught. They use it to develop higher thinking skills and transform it into knowledge that makes sense to them.