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In this essay Vygotskys theories are going to be explored and evaluated to assess the merits of social interaction in cognitive development. This essay in particular is going to be focusing on how social interactions play a role in cognitive development.
Lev Vygotsky was a social psychologist. He mainly focused on child development and education. He also explored language development. His theories stressed the fundamental role social interaction played in cognitive development. Some of the theories Vygotsky is best known for is the Zone of Proximal Development and Sociocultural Theory. Vygotsky's sociocultural theory was developed the same time as Jean Piaget was developing his theories. However he and his theories did reach a high level of recognition due to his untimely death at the age of 37 and some of his work is still being incomplete. His work was not translated into English and was not accessible in the western world until 1962 (Cherry, 2012, McLeod 2007).
According to Taylor (2005) Cognitive Development is a process when infants develop their capability for complex thought. Cognitive development is an active process that requires the learner to have an understanding and opinion of what is seen to be reality. This involves taking in new information and combining it with it with the learners existing knowledge to come up with new ideas or validating existing ideas. This process allows the learner to improve their thinking process, intelligence, their reasoning and problem solving abilities. The information changes as the learner grows and develops.
Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory is based around cultural environment the child is brought up in and the social interaction plays a significant role in the development of cognition. This improves the child's thinking and enables them to control their behaviour. Vygotsky (1978:57) states "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals." Sociocultural theory disagrees with Piaget's egocentric speech that when children speak a loud to themselves is the way they express thought with what they are doing at that time regardless to who is listening to them can understand them. Piaget believed that egocentric speech declines through cognitive development and other experiences such as disagreement with other children or that other may hold a different point of view from themselves (Berk 2010 cited the work of Piaget 1926). However Vygotsky believed that language allows the children to focus on their activities and help them accomplish the task. According to Berk (2010:234) "In Vygotsky's view, children speak to themselves for self-guidance." Many studies have supported Vygotsky's perspective compared to Piaget's (Berk and Harris, 2003; Winsler, 2009) due to this children's independent speech is now called private speech instead of egocentric speech.
Vygotsky had stages of cognitive development which start at birth to the age of seven. The stages lead toward the internalization of the child's way of thinking, which is influenced by the adults around them. There are four stages the child goes through between the ages of birth and seven. Firstly the primitive stage, secondly the naive psychology stage, thirdly the private speech stage and the ingrowth stage Boyd and Bee, 2006.
Firstly the primitive stage, this is when the child is an infant. As infant babies they say made up words that do not mean anything for example goo. Infants mainly learn through imitation of the people around them and their first contact being their parents. This happens till the age of two which is when the language begins to develop and they enter the naÃ¯ve psychology stage Boyd and Bee, 2006.
The naÃ¯ve psychology stage is when babies start to communicate with other people using language however they do not understand what they are saying. After the child starts to understand the purpose of language and what they can do with it, they enter the private speech stage at the age of four Boyd and Bee, 2006.
The private speech stage is when children use language to solve problems Boyd and Bee 2006. Children use private speech when a task it too difficult for them to complete or if they are stuck and do not know what to do. Private speech changes with age it may become a whisper or softer. Vygotsky sees language as the foundation for a higher cognitive process such as problem-solving, planning, recall and self-reflection Vygotsky (1987). For example if a child was walking down some stairs them may say to themselves "be careful" this is a result of internalization made to them by people around them (Boyd and Bee 2006).
The final phase of cognitive development is the ingrowth stage this happens at the age of 7. This is when egocentric speech becomes inner speech. A child will stop thinking a loud to themselves when solving problems, they start developing their thinking (Gredler, 2009).
Vgotsky other theory revolved around child development learning through guidance. Vygotsky, 1978:86 defined Zone of proximal development as "the distance between the actual developmental 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". Zone of proximal development has been tantamount with the term scaffolding. Vygotsky never used this term in any of his books it came from (Wood et al, 1976). Wood et al. (1976:90) defined scaffolding as 'Those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner's capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence'.
Zone of proximal development (ZPD) is when a child is given a task or a range of tasks that the child cannot complete on their own and need help off a more skilled person or more knowledgeable other (Berk, 2010). More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) is someone who has better knowledge about a particular task than the learner. This is usually teacher or parent however it can be anyone such as peers or teenagers. Also MKO does not need to be a person it can be the internet for example if someone wanted to learn how to bake cookies they might use the internet which is the more knowledgeable other and then they would know how to make cookies McLeod (2007).
By using ZPD the child is given enough of a boost to achieve the task and in the future would not need help to complete a similar task (McLeod 2010). Cherry, 2012 "For example, a teacher in an experimental psychology course might initially provide scaffolding for students by coaching them step-by-step through their experiments. Next, teacher might slowly remove the scaffolding by only providing outlines or brief descriptions of how to proceed. Finally, students would be expected to develop and carry out their experiments independently." By scaffolding them and then removing the scaffolds it allows them to develop skills that they would be able to use on their own which develops a higher mental function Vygotsky (1978). The help given is adjusted to fit the child level of performance this process is referred to as scaffolding which is then removed as the child develops independence over time. To find out how effective Vygotsky's ZPD's is, McLeod 2009 cites Freund (1990) study in which he carried out a study, a task was given where some children worked with their mother (ZPD) or alone in the manner of Piaget (discovery learning). The results from the study showed the children who worked with their mothers perform significantly better than the children working alone (Freund 1990). This study gives further evidence to support Vygotsky's ZPD rather than Piaget's theory of learning through discovery.
However there is not enough evidence found in studies to support or contradict Vygotsky's ideas Thomas, 2000 cited by Boyd and Bee, 2006). However studies have shown children who have been provided with scaffolding within the zone of proximal development achieve much better grades than those who have not been provided with scaffolding (Neitzel and Stright, 2003 cited by Boyd and Bee, 2006). Some research done shows children who work in groups have much better ideas than those who have worked by themselves. The research done agrees with Vygotsky's theories however this is dependent on the group having array of capabilities lead by a child with greater knowledge (Tan-Niam et al, 1998 cited by Boyd and Bee, 2006). Hence as Vygotsky does not take into consideration of roles and interactions within the learning group his theory is not fully supported by research and studies done. (Boyd and Bee, 2006).
Vygotsky also emphasised on culture and its role to children's intellectual development. Children from different cultures mind develops differently by their species-typical brain, their ability to solve problems and understand their surroundings by the beliefs and values of their culture (Shaffer, & Kipp, 2010).
Louis (2009) cites the work of Gredler and Shields (2009) Psychological tools are essential in cognitive development. Psychological tools is the process that is used to explore the environment and communicate with people. Some example of these tools are symbols, language and maps. According to Vygotsky through social interaction tools are share with the learner this enables the learner to understand the world.
Vygotsky suggested that all children are born with elementary mental functions attention, sensation, perception and memory. Then through the interaction of cultural environment they are moulded into more complex higher mental functions. For example children's memory are restricted by the biological factors. So to improve their memory children from different cultures use different tools to help themselves memorise for example children in the information age would take notes to help them memorise however children in the pre-literate society use different strategies like tying knots in string to remember. Tools of intellectual adaption help children to use their basic mental functions more effectively and they differ depending on culture (McLeod, 2007, Shaffer, & Kipp, 2010).
Vygotsky's sociocultural theory has received some criticisms. Vygotsky ignored the biological side of cognitive development. He mentioned heredity and brain growth however did not go into their role in cognitive development. Vygotsky emphasised heavily on culture and social interaction on cognitive development however did not take into account that children's ability to structure their own development. On the other hand Vygotskians argue children communicating with their peers and take part in social activities this is where their cognitive development develops (Berk, 2008).
Vygotsky's theories are widely accepted by most, however they have left lots of room for debate as they are incomplete. They are incomplete as Vygotsky's died at a very young and was unable to complete them or confirm them through studies/research. This has led people to add to his theories or misinterpret their meaning and as Vygotsky is no longer alive his theories true meaning may never be known. Vygotsky's theories are currently being used in many educational institutes across the world and especially here in Britain and America, where people like Dr S Kagan have taken the idea of group work and developed it to aid learning in an educational setting. Thus Vygotsky's theories written originally in 1920-1930 and interpreted in 1978 are still having a profound effect on society and now on how children are learning in schools and through these children will continue to have an effect on the generations to come. Zastrow, & Kirst-Ashman, 2010, Kagan 2008. McLeod 2007.