Helping children with the right amount of support and at the right time can be tricky. As parents, it is useful to know when and how we should support children in their development.
Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development
The theory argues that community and language play a central part in learning. While Jean Piaget concluded that children’s cognitive development happens in stages, Vygotsky rejected his ideas and believed that children develop independently of specific stages as the result of social interactions. Vygotsky claimed that we are born with four “elementary mental functions”: Attention, Sensation, Perception, and Memory. It is our social and cultural environment that allows us to use these elementary skills to develop and finally gain “higher mental functions”.
The Zone of Proximal Development
This development ideally happens in “The Zone of Proximal Development”. First, there is what we can do on our own. Then there is the Zone of Proximal Development, which represents what we can do with the help of an adult, a friend, technology, or what Vygotsky called the More Knowledgeable Other. Last, there is what’s beyond our reach.
To illustrate this let us think of twins who are raised in a community in which boys are expected to learn and succeed, while girls are only expected to be pretty. At the age of 10 months, both have the ability to crawl and are in the zone of proximal development for learning how to stand on their feet. The More Knowledgeable Other, in this case, the father, provides the boy with opportunities to practice in a playroom that he has equipped with scaffolding and other objects. The boy is encouraged to explore the equipment, and eventually, he uses it to pull himself up. A few hours later he’s cruising along the structures. And a few days later he’s standing on his feet. The girl also has the potential to stand but does not receive any support in learning the skill.
When we compare the two we see that, while the girl is still trying to get up, the boy has moved into a new zone. He knows how to balance while standing and now has the potential to learn how to walk. Both will eventually learn how to walk, but, according to Vygotsky, the boy will be more skilled. The same principles apply to all learning and the development of higher cognitive functions. And only those learning with the assistance of a capable mentor can reach the full potential of their ability. Vygotsky, therefore, believed that inside the Zone of Proximal Development, learning can precede development, which means that a child is able to learn skills that go beyond their natural maturity.
He also established an explicit connection between speech and mental concepts, arguing that inner speech develops from external speech via a gradual process of “internalization”. This means that thought itself develops as a result of conversation. Therefore, younger children who don’t finish this process can only “think out loud”. Once the process is complete, inner speech and spoken language become independent.
Lev Vygotsky died of tuberculosis in 1934, at the age of 37. Despite his young age, he became one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. He left the following advice for educators: “By giving students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.”